Friday, October 29, 2010

On the hardest-working lycanthrope in show business

Just about every city had a horror host at some time in its history. New York had the legendary John Zacherle, the Bay Area had the decidedly not horrific Bob Wilkins, and before he became the voice of ABC television and Parkay margarine (not to mention the father of director Paul Thomas), Ernie Anderson was world famous in Cleveland as Ghoulardi. Even Boston comedian Lenny Clarke had a movie show on WSBK called (creatively) the Lenny Clarke Late Show, featuring Denis Leary and Martin Olson. Back in the day, the horror host was often a second job for someone at the station, like how the weatherman also used to host the kiddie show. This was remembered fondly on SCTV, where Horror/kiddie show host Count Floyd was "actually" the news anchorman Floyd Robertson (both of course played by Joe Flaherty). Kids' shows and horror shows were often the most creative places in television; neither were paid much attention to by the brass, they often shared cast and crew (usually heard laughing from behind the camera), and there was a feeling that they could do anything they wanted. And slowly but surely that creativity was rewarded. More teens and adults started watching, and the shows took on a pop-charm. In most cases, kids show hosts are a beloved as the horror hosts. Sandy Becker, Soupy Sales, Chuck McCann, Bob McAlister...and that's just New York City.

That freewheeling atmosphere is largely gone now. Shows, especially kids' shows, are carefully pored over for anything offensive, valuable lessons are shoehorned in, and gone, gone are the days where violence and slapstick could be seen in its unedited form. So when I hear of a show that throws back to the good old days, all or nothing days, the Kukla Fran and Ollie days, I'm happy to hear about it.

Which is why for the last couple of days, I've been getting emails from a wolfman, apologizing for not catching up with me.

Wolfman Mac and his enhancement talent,
Boney Bob
Mac Kelly is the creator, star and damn near everything else of Wolfman Mac's Chiller Drive-In. He produces the show in Pontiac, Michigan and syndicates it on a number of regional TV channels, and nationally via the Retro TV cable channel network. Of the dozens of local horror show hosts across America, his show has the biggest distribution, in a head-to-head race with Elvira's recently-revived program. But at its core it's an old school low budget local horror show - volunteers running the lights, people bringing extension cords from home, the lot. Everyone pitching in for their love of the medium, like a Hammer horror film made by the Little Rascals. And that is the sum of its charm.

He was happy to agree to an interview, but has been so busy with appointments, appearances, and business meetings that went late into the night we only got to meet up today. The show started as Nightmare Sinema on cable access, got a spot on a local station in Detroit, and just got a national syndication through Retro TV last November, a deal that came just in time.

"It was last October that we got our national syndication," recalls Mac. "I had been contacting RetroTV and a couple other networks for months and months. And I was at one of my advertisers, and it was one of those days where there was NO money coming in. Halloween was coming up, we had no merchandise, we had nothing. And I remember saying, 'I think I've brought this about as far as I can bring it.' And no lie, twenty minutes later I get the call from Retro TV saying 'All right, I'm gonna put your show into 80 million homes, get me some programming immediately. Bye!' Alright, well I guess we're gonna keep this going!'

Getting that national deal wasn't exactly the road to fame and fortune, however. His income comes solely through the ad dollars he can sell for the show. So while he was hustling the show himself when it was local, now he's doing the same thing on a larger scale.

"It's definitely been a labor of love. There was a point over last winter where I was wrapping my tennis shoes in duct tape to keep the snow out. I had to sleep in my studio, because it's carpeted, and it's the only area that's closed in. The building doesn't have any heat, and I had a couple of space heaters, and I slept on couch cushions for months until we had some advertising sold, get back out and get my own place. There was a time, not too long ago that I was homeless, doing this, past the point where a lot of people would say "Give up". I went days, days not eating. And my people would show up at the studio and there would be no sign that I was living there. They'd get there and I'd throw open the doors, "Hey c'mon in, NOTHING's going on!" This has definitely been a struggle, by all means, but we're so close. We're about five, six months away before we're at a position where I can finally compensate myself properly, my cast and crew... But right now, I manage, two times a week, for about sixty episodes, round up thirty to forty volunteers to come in and do a TV show."

He's been offered work on radio, which is where his career started, but he's dedicated to making the show a hit. "First, I just wanted to see if I could do it, and once I proved to myself that I could, I wanted to become a household name, because I loved the horror movies. And now, now that at times this production has brought me literally and physically to my knees, it's a mission. I want to show we've done something new, no one's done this kind of format before, we created it out of thin air. I want to prove we can make a success of this."

He's made a few enemies in the mean time...people he's never even met. "There are people who hate what I'm doing, who want to keep the show off the air, JUST because I keep the show family-friendly. Those people speak out against me, do YouTube videos about me, say that I've got a kiddie show. They don't like that I'm this kind of horror host.

"One of the very few successful horror hosts out there is Elvira. I talked to Cassie (Cassandra Petersen back in April, and she told me there were some plans to be bringing her back. And that's fine. We have a very different show, we have a situation comedy; Seinfeld meets the Munsters. I just went to a convention a few months ago. There's 150 horror hosts in this country. And the only ones doing what we're doing are Elvira and me. The only difference is she has the million-dollar sponsors. When the camera goes off, she gets to be Cassie Peterson again; I gotta get on the phone and sell advertising."

If you watch the show, you'll see the grinning visage of J.R. "Bob" Dobbs, High epopt of the Church of the Sub-Genius. But while Mac loves the organization, he defines himself as "spiritual but not religious". He is an ordained minister in the Universal Life Church, however, and is legally able to officiate at weddings, something he's done for a couple of years now. He'll be performing a mass ceremony this Halloween, his second annual. But it's a more personal philosophy that's kept him going in this quest to make his dream a reality.

"Before The Secret and laws of Attraction became the chic thing to do, the hot book to read, these were principles I knew as a kid and a teenager, bringing things into my life that I'd work on and focus towards. It's very much how the television came to be. And while there's not any money on the table right now, and I drive a $200 cargo van, I believe with all my heart that this show is about to become successful.

"A lot of people talk about 'When I lose the weight...when the kids get to that age...when the house is paid off' Those times never come, and there's never a good time to do it. And that's been my whole thing this whole time. Even lying in the dark, shivering, knowing that I'm doing something good. And I get cards from kids, drawing pictures of me, and we just keep going. And I know it's gonna pay off, I know it's gonna happen. All the hard work is there."

It is indeed.

Wolfman Mac's Chiller Drive-In runs Saturday nights at 10PM on the Retro TV digital television network. Check their website to see if there's a local station in your area, and check with your local cable channel to get them to pick it up.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

On the challenges of writing a comic book about scary Forn Parts

I'm begging you, PLEASE forget that The 99 has Muslims in it. 

Forget that it was created by a Muslim professor specifically to give Muslim children some positive role models so they don't grow up thinking that the guys with exploding jackets are cool.  Forget that the concept, origin and themes of the book are based on the 99 aspects of Allah, and that similar concepts pervade the book.  Forget that it's staggeringly popular in other countries (Muslim and non), not only because it's entertaining, but because they have heroes that a Muslim child can look at and identify with.

Because let's face it, you don't know bugger-all about the Muslim religion, and if you didn't read in the paper that this was all so, you'd never know.

You know the story of Aladdin, Ali Baba and the other 999 nights?  Muslims.  Has anyone asked Disney to pull copies of their film off the shelves or stop showing off the characters in the theme parks?

The origin issue of The 99 starts at the fall of Baghdad; the Mongols overran the city, razed it utterly, and destroyed the most expansive library of the time, throwing the books in the Tigris river, the ink turning the river black. All that really happened.  The comic starts with the knowledge from the books being absorbed into 99 gems with the help of a magic potion.  The gems give the bearers superpowers.

Now that's a HELL of a White Event, and if you didn't get told that it had deliberate Muslim overtones you'd just think it was as cool as any version of the Thief of Baghdad with its flying carpets and giant genies.

This book has gotten almost no distribution in America.  I got ahold of the first few issues, and never saw another one.  I asked my local comic shop how many had come out; they thought they'd gotten the first mini-series done and that was it.  A check of the website shows that they've done twenty-five issues to date.  Two years of monthly issues, and I'll lay odds you won't be able to find a single copy of a single issue in a store near you, save MAYBE for the origin issue, because everybody picks up first issues.

Some people are starting to notice the limited distribution of the .  There's a guy on eBay trying to get upwards of 25 dollars for the first few issues of the book.  Bear in mind, they're all available digitally from the 99 website for $1.99 each. 

A full year ago, DC announced they'd be doing a crossover with The 99 and the JLA.  Y'all had a full year to learn about the characters.  How many did?  The talk show circuit glommed onto the idea that a Muslim Comic Book existed, and that Superman was to appear with them, and had to put on new shirts cause the drool stains looked horrible.  I really don't want to turn this into a tirade about the short-sighted way most people are seeing anything connected to Muslim culture but...well, if it walks like a camel, and spits like a camel...

I know I've rather buried the lead on this piece, but the lack of fair looks this book has been getting has infuriated me, and I really thought it needed venting.

The first issue of JLA / The 99 came out this week, and to be terribly honest, if you don't know dicky-bird about The 99 (and most of you don't), it won't make a lick of sense. Which is why at the very least you should download the origin issue FOR FREE from the 99 website. It takes place on Earth-Crossover; Superman is not on walkabout, Wonder Woman appears in her new costume but not in a dystopian landscape, and there's only one Batman.  The mini (and the regular series) is written by Fabian Nicieza and Stuart Moore, who as far as I know are not on any government watch lists.  It starts with a promising moment of cooperation that gangs quickly aglay, and ends with the tease of a new Noor Stone and new member of The 99.  The concept of intolerance being used as a weapon by the bad guys is an obvious direction to take the book, but Fabe & Stu keep it from becoming hammer-handed. The art by Tom Derenick and Drew Geraci is clean and impressive.  It is worth your time, as is the regular series.  They are doing a great job of showing that there are swarthy people in the world who do nopt want to blow us up.  We could do worse than to meet them half-way.

Similarly but less controversially, Paul Cornell is writing a book that is steeped in the mysticism and culture of a foreign country, is filled with references to its ancient practices, and is drop-dead awesome.  In his case, the country is England, and the book is Knight and Squire.  Grant Morrison brought back the Batmen Of Other Lands club in his R.I.P. arc, and K&S were the breakout stars.  Paul Cornell, who writes for Doctor Who, and was nominated for numerous awards after his Captain Britain title was canceled at Marvel, was handed the job of expanding the brief glimpse of Superhero Britain that Grant gave us, and he has run with it.  He plays England the way most Americans think of it - a strange land steeped in magic, strange accents, and tea.  The entire first issue takes place in a magical pub where the heroes and villains meet to drink and schmooze, protected from attacking each other by a magical spell.  The spell, of course, wears off.  In three pages he introduces more new characters than the average title does in a year of Wednesdays.  This is a book so full of creativity that it must be read standing up, for fear of spilling any.  Cornell is also doing a bang-up job on Action Comics, about which I have already kvelled.  He's about to take on Batman proper as well, and I expect that story to have a much darker bent, once again keeping the reader surprised as to how much he can do.

Both books do a great job of entertaining and letting you see other peoples and cultures without being pedantic about it.  Pick up on them.

Monday, October 11, 2010

On the relative legal safety of saying "no"

"Think twice, and then say nothing"  --Ancient Sinanju proverb

I'm a big fan of Opie and Anthony, as now heard on Sirius/XM Satellite Radio channel 202.  I mentioned some months back that they had gotten permission to run their Homeless Shopping Spree, in which forgoten men are given cash, are escorted to a local upper-class mall and allowed to purchase whatever they like, all while being chronicled on-air.  The whole crux of the bit is to watch the reactions of the stores as these guys toddle in, cash in hand.  I hasten to add, in the four or five times they've done it, there has not been ONE incident; nothing has been stolen or destroyed, no violence has occurred; indeed, since the customers have cash and are usually accompanied by dozens, even hundreds of O&A fans, it's the best day of sales the stores have in a while.

The Lawyers (Or as Opie refers to them, "The babysitters"), however, wanting to make sure that nothing would happen (both litigiously and comedically) and suggested they CALL the malls ahead of time and ASK if they could bring a busload of homeless people to their establishment.  This would rather ruin the spontaneity of the bit, and it was, alas, cancelled. 

This is an example of the new standard in entertainment today, and in "shock jock" radio in specific, and in the case of O&A even more specifically.  The legal departments of stations, networks, etc work through endless Worst Case Scenarios, mentally running progressively unlikely simulations to see how many might end in "...and then we get sued and lose the house".  It's the kind of things your parents would warn you about when you were a teenager; if you do X, Y will happen and they'll come after US! (*). So the lawyers, in an attempt to nip such situations in the proverbial bud, either say said stunt, bit or parody cannot be done, or attempt to buffer it with so many disclaimers or codicils as to remove any possible comedy from the thing. 

Example: radio shows cannot do prank calls anymore.  It's one of the things that made Don Imus' name back in the day - he'd call businesses and ask for outrageous things. His first album, "1,200 Hamburgers to Go" features a number of them, featuring an attempt to rent a car to be used in the Indy 500.  It's a standard bit, been done for ages.  But nowadays, in the litigious world we live in, you can't DO that anymore;  you either have to call the company ahead of time and WARN them that they will be pranked (again, removing the potential humor entirely) or just fake the whole thing.  I'm rather surprised they haven't decided that faking a prank call is in some way misleading to the listener, who could then sue for mental cruelty or some such.  (Perhaps I should keep my damn mouth shut...)

This morning, O&A were talking about the potential return of a classic bit they've been doing since they were on terrestrial radio, without complaint, repercussion or incident; a bit called "What the hell is THAT!?!"  In it, a number of listeners would come to the studio, all having assorted growths or other Things They Should really Get Looked At, and get examined by actual doctors, live on the show.  Now the true purpose of the bit is not to help people, but to give the gang the opportunity to look at assorted growths and react/mock accordingly.  But considering at least one guy was warned that a thing in his mouth might be cancerous, there is some potential good to come of it (the event was enough to get comedian and Third Mike on the show Jim Norton to give up smoking on the spot.  And FTR, the guy got it checked and it was benign, but hey, better safe, right?) 

Again, I must stress, NEVER has an O&A bit resulted in any legal action.  Indeed, they've never resulted in anything other than outstanding ratings and a few letters from peiople who likely didn't ever hear said bit, just heard ABOUT it.  That last one, The Bit Of Which We Do Not Speak, resulted in getting them fired, but again, more as a result of the publicity than any actionable damage.

So anyway, this on-air diagnostic bit, the kind of thing they've been doing for years, and the kind of things the people like Dr. Oz and Dr. Dean Edell make a CAREER at, is being "looked at" by the lawyers from XM.  And why?  Not because it's gone wrong before, but because it might concievably go wrong in some unlikely way in the future.

Similarly, frequent guest of the program Dr. Steve (star of his own show, "Weird medicine" also on channel 202) is now being checked and double-checked for his next appearance.  The desired bit - Dr. Steve would attempt to break the world record for the most prostate exams in a four-hour period.  Again, Dr. Steve is an actual doctor.  And  bear further in mind, he ALREADY gives medical advice over the radio on that very station, without incident or issue, by adding a simple disclaimer that any advice given should be double-checked by your own doctor, yadda-yadda-blither-blather.  But when presented with this bit now, the lawyers asked, "Is Dr. Steve licensed in New York State?"  Because they feared that his sticking fingers up people hinders might be misconstrued as practicing medicine in the state without a license.  Never been an issue before, but all it takes is one guy in a suit saying "Yeah, but what if...?" and the brakes are hit hard.

Comedian Rich Vos got it exactly right when he said, referring to the people who make these decisions, "No one will ever get fired for saying 'no' to something."  We live in a CYA world now where it's safer to say no to something risky.  Regardless of the upside of saying yes, it's easier to play safe and go with what's been done before.  It's why we rarely see something new on television, and as soon as we do, it's immediately copied to death, as it is now a safe and proven idea.

In today's world, Mr. Carlson would never have been allowed to bring those turkeys anywhere NEAR that helicopter.

Lawyers have successfully created a new market for themselves, that of coming up with scenarios where a company MIGHT get sued, and then warning them about it.  And because there have been so many outlandish suits in the recent past (Your honor, the floor wax label did not actually SAY it could not be used to wash dishes...), the companies do not just laugh the nightmare scenarios out of the room.  Because, of course, once they've been warned such a scenario MIGHT happen and then move forward anyway, they are even MORE liable should it occur.  Back to the earlier comparison, it's like when your mother (or god help you, spouse) says "Make sure you don't XYZ" which all but puts the curse on it, making SURE it will happen if you choose to go ahead anyway.

But here's the really annoying bit.  Who put us in the situation where lawyers can point to the crazy lawsuits that have cost companies millions of dollars?  OTHER LAWYERS.  Whenever a person has an accident that was clearly his fault and could have been avoided with a modicum of common sense, there will be a lawyer who can spin a situation that makes it the fault of the place and company at which it happened.  And it's been proven that juries tend to side with the plaintiff in such cases, not because they think the company was actually liable, but because they think the person "deserves" the money, and because they hope that one day THEY will be lucky enough to get to sue a company and don't want to mess up their karma by saying this guy shouldn't get his bit'a sumthin-sumthin'.

Now here's the happy ending.  No, none of the bits have gotten approved (yet), but O&A took the incident to the air, went on about it, and turned it into about an hour of RIVETING radio.  They've had years of practice, but O&A can make some tasty lemonade.

(*)This bit copyright Kevin "That's Not Right" Meany, who is likely still using it in his act.