Reading too deeply into these things since 1981

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Better Call Saul, "Alpine Shepherd Boy"

Here’s something I didn’t expect to say before this show premiered: Better Call Saul has an incredible sweetness at its core.

Remember, now, that this is a spinoff of Breaking Bad, where sweetness was not unknown but where it inevitably led to tragedy. What’s more, Better Call Saul is focusing on a character who was, in so many ways, an open facilitator of that tragedy. We met him in an Albuquerque of cynicism and despair, and he was at home there.

Seeing him at work in “Alpine Shepherd Boy,” we are in a whole other world. A world in which shiftiness and misdirection are necessary, but also a world in which there can be joy. In which there can be happiness. A world in which underhanded methods can be employed in aid of making things better.

This is the conflict at the heart of Jimmy McGill, and I think it’s one that’s been there even when we knew him as Saul Goodman. In Breaking Bad, Saul was the one who expanded Walter’s reach, his empire, and, ultimately, his capacity for destruction. While he was never directly involved with what were probably Walt’s darkest actions, he kept the plates spinning in the background. What’s more: he was happy to do so.

And yet, nobody disliked the guy. As frustrated as we got with Walt, as frightened as we got of Gus, as worried as we got for Jesse, Saul was always just there. He didn’t inspire the same kind of severe audience reaction, because he was somehow separate from the events unfolding around him. He was of them, and not of them. From the moment he entered that world — in a satirical, comic bubble — he felt safe.

Whatever happened, Saul was going to be okay. And we were perfectly happy with that. In spite of the fact that he was doing Very Bad Things, we needed to trust that he was going to be fine…even when we could trust in nothing else. There’s a reason, after all, that his kind of character is referred to as comic “relief.”

In Better Call Saul, Jimmy’s been up to some fishy business, but we love him. And “Alpine Shepherd Boy” shows us why: he can be a good person. He has the potential in him, somewhere, to be an excellent human being. He won’t become one through hard work and initiative, of course…he’ll become one (if he ever does) through dodges and deception. But that’s what makes him such a great character; he operates in an intrinsically hateable way, but never becomes hateable himself.

“Alpine Shepherd Boy” seems to offer a thematic bookend to a great sequence in “Mijo.” Whereas that episode carved for us a representative cross-section of what Jimmy McGill’s life would look like as a public defender, this one shows us what his life would look like if he embraced semi-legitimacy. In short, he goes from representing those who need a lawyer and can’t afford one, to representing those who don’t need a lawyer but can afford to throw their money away on one.

It’s a fantastic series of scenes, showing our unhateable shyster meeting with a fanatical secessionist, the inventor of a sex toilet, and, most lucratively, an old woman relaying complicated plans for the posthumous distribution of her porcelain figurines. Across each of these we learn a little more about Jimmy, but what really stands out is how strong Bob Odenkirk is as an actor.

I know Odenkirk very well from many things, not the least of which is Mr. Show. Mr. Show was a sketch comedy program that ran for four seasons on HBO. It’s also one of the very few sketch-based examples I point to (along with Monty Python’s Flying Circus and The League of Gentlemen) when I argue that good acting elevates good comedy.

In Mr. Show, the sketches didn’t wear out their welcome. They flitted and evolved and darted across the screen. At no point did the show technically need Bob Odenkirk and David Cross to deliver legitimately impressive performances…but the two of them did anyway. And that’s, I honestly believe, what gives it staying power. In sketch comedy, jokes will fall flat. They have to; mathematically, there’s no way to try to spin so many different kinds of laughs out of so much material and have it all land successfully. Put good acting behind it, though, and even the weakest skits become interesting, and instructive.

Odenkirk is a master. Watching those three scenes of him with clients, it’s impossible to deny that. His attempt to maintain composure in front of the secessionist (and then again for a whole other reason when he’s offered a million dollars), is solid work. His fumbling lies about practically specializing in patent law are delivered perfectly, with just the right amount of confident deflection. And his response to the old woman who takes far too long to hand him a figurine (“Oh.”) takes understatement and evolves it into an artform.

But what about the sweetness I mentioned?

Well, it comes out of last week’s cliffhanger…which was not where I expected it to be. While “Alpine Shepherd Boy” moves the story forward from Jimmy’s billboard anti-heroics, the real stakes come as a result of Chuck stealing his neighbor’s newspaper.

A very funny sequence in that episode becomes a sad one here, as poor Chuck is tasered by the police and threatened with involuntary commitment. It’s a genuine achievement for “Alpine Shepherd Boy” that the funniest extremes of Chuck’s “condition” lead us smoothly into the saddest.

Chuck — played by Michael McKean — suffers from what Jimmy oversimplifies as an electricity allergy. From the very first episode we’ve had indications that it’s a psychological problem rather than a physical one, and “Alpine Shepherd Boy” proves that conclusively. But it’s also evidence that Jimmy loves his brother, and that’s where the sweetness lies.

While Jimmy may be humoring Chuck, the fact remains that he does take care of him. He doesn’t humor him because it’s the easy way out…he humors him in spite of the fact that this means he’ll have to keep his brother in groceries, ice, and newspapers until the day one of them dies.

And when Hamlin — Chuck’s law partner — shows up at the hospital, it almost looks like Jimmy’s caved. He says he’ll commit his brother just so that he can cash him out of the law firm. A moment later we learn that this isn’t true, and he only said it to make Hamlin sweat. It was a dishonest tactic, but one that served, he felt, a better purpose.

It’s an interesting twist. Instead of a bad man pretending to be good, this is a good man pretending to be bad. And it’s kind of gorgeous.

Something I haven’t mentioned much about is Jimmy’s relationship with Kim, played by Rhea Sheehorn. Sheehorn’s been in a lot of things, it looks like, but I’ve only seen her in this…and, god, she’s good.

There’s a level of remarkable interplay between her and Odenkirk. Chemistry, as Chuck would say, is an oversimplification, even if it’s largely correct. There’s something about them that feels real. The way she’s more capable, and yet admires his tenacity. The way she’s above him in station, and yet is envious of the stories he gets to tell of his crazy clients. The way she’s attractive enough that a man like Jimmy McGill shouldn’t even turn her head, but she also knows that he listens…and that he cares. He’s open with her. He’s honest (so much so that he’ll break an NDA just to make her laugh). He’s human. She wants that.

That’s the real sweetness I felt in the episode, coming to a head in Chuck’s hospital room, when she can’t bring herself to break anybody’s heart by disagreeing with them. She knows she’s dealing with two McGills that are, each in their own way, liars. And yet she cares about them. At any given point she could open her mouth and prove both of them wrong. But she keeps her mouth shut, because she’d rather keep them than come out on top.

Kim is my favorite new character on this show, and the ease with which she and Jimmy slip into each other’s lives is a delight. In fact, I’m sad that Breaking Bad introduced us to a post-divorce Saul. It means that whatever happens between these two, there’s a termination point. And I’d be shocked if it was a fair or pretty one. As it stands, Kim is marching toward disappointment…which makes the happy accident of Sheehorn and Odenkirk working so well together feel like a profoundly distressing tragedy.

There’s also a sweetness to Jimmy’s relationship with Mike, one that looks to blossom into something truly interesting next week. So…maybe I’ll save my talk about that for then.

Jimmy McGill has a heart. He’s a showman and a flimflam man, but one (for now) with a conscience. When Kim turns him on to the idea of specializing in elder law, he latches right onto it in a way that feels exploitative (for obvious reasons), but also genuine. After all, the old woman with the figurines was the only client he was actually able to help.

His foray into elder law is a lot like one of those optical illusions. You look and see an old crone…but keep looking, and it turns into a beautiful young woman. Keep looking beyond that, and you’ll see both images fighting in your brain for supremacy, with no clear winner. Likewise, everything Jimmy does in his elder law posturing seems to occupy a constantly fluctuating, indefinable middle ground.

That’s Jimmy in the old woman’s living room. Sure, she’s the only one who paid him…but she’s also the only one to whom he could offer any value. He wasn’t asked to do much, but he was good at keeping straight what he was asked to do.

That’s Jimmy in the retirement community. Passing out Jell-O cups as a good deed…but they also serve as promotional materials for his services. He’s glad-handing a bunch of helpless senior citizens…but they genuinely seem to enjoy his company, and are appreciative of it.

And that’s Jimmy handing Mike his new business card.

We get a wonderful, and largely silent, view of how that plays out for Mike after the red-doored Esteem pulls away.

Jimmy McGill might have found a way to do some actual good, even if he is seeking to profit from it. But to phrase that another way, Jimmy McGill needs to profit off of something…so might it not as well be doing some actual good?

The image flips. It refuses to become one thing or the other for very long. We’re in a state of flux. And it’s fucking fantastic.

"Manos" The Hands of Fate, Live!The live screening of the remastered / restored “Manos” The Hands of Fate is happening April 2, and you’re invited. All proceeds benefit The Trevor Project, and you’ll get to enjoy a great night out with a terrible movie and excellent conversation. Tickets are on sale as of today…and a few have already been sold! We need to sell quite a few more, though, in order for AMC to host the event.

Think of it like a Kickstarter. You don’t get charged unless the event actually happens. By purchasing a ticket, even if you can’t make it, you’re helping the event to happen, benefiting charity, and scoring yourself some sweet Noiseless Chatter swag.

Additionally, everyone who buys a ticket will be invited to a special, private, online screening / discussion of Tommy Wiseau’s masterpiece of incompetence The Room.

Even if you can’t make it to “Manos” (but I sure hope you can!) you can enjoy The Room.

You can read more about the event here

But don’t forget to buy your tickets! Every purchase pulls this closer to happening, and I’ll hug each and every one of you who do. (Airfare not included.)

Noiseless Chatter presents…
Manos: The Hands of Fate – The Restoration

Thursday, April 02 8:30 PM – 10:15 PM
at AMC Highlands Ranch 24
103 West Centennial Boulevard, Highlands Ranch, CO, US, 80129
$12.00 General

Better Call Saul, "Hero"

It’s hard to believe Better Call Saul has only been on for four episodes. It feels as though it’s run for much longer. That’s an indication, I think, of just how effortlessly it slides into the vacancy left by Breaking Bad. It’s not a replacement in terms of subject matter — could Breaking Bad have devoted an hour of its precious time to squabbling over a billboard? — but in terms of quality, and the sheer amount of care that goes into every aspect of its production.

Watching “Hero,” something struck me. When Better Call Saul was first announced, I was worried. Not because I didn’t think Goodman (or Odenkirk) could sustain a show on his own, but because Vince Gilligan wouldn’t be writing it. He’d create it, get some plates spinning, and move on to his next project. He’d be leaving a universe he created in the hands of others, and that’s always a worrying prospect…even when the universe is nowhere near as complex and well-structured as the one he developed in Breaking Bad.

What struck me during “Hero” is this: Gilligan didn’t just write a great show; he taught a whole room full of writers how to write a great show.

Breaking Bad represents, from beginning to end, a remarkably sustained quality, and an even more strongly sustained vision. “Hero,” this most recent chapter in the life of Jimmy-cum-Saul, was written by Gennifer Hutchison…whose name was also attached to some excellent episodes of Breaking Bad. “I See You,” “Cornered,” “Salud,” “Buyout,” and “Confessions” represent her work for that show. In terms of tone, they have nothing — at all — in common with “Hero.” In terms of quality, they’re of a definite cloth.

What made Breaking Bad work at even its weakest moments — and what is making Better Call Saul work already — is a sense of artistry. There’s a level of attention given to the way shots are framed, costumes are fitted, and sets are designed that contributes to an overall feeling of mastery. At any given time, we may not know what we’re looking at, or why we’re looking at it. (Remember that kid on the dirtbike at the beginning of “Dead Freight”?) We stay attentive, however. Perhaps even more attentive, because we can trust the writers. When there’s the reassuring presence of an artist’s hand, we are willing to follow along.

“Hero” relies almost entirely on the artist’s hand, which isn’t to say it’s worse off for it. As of now I’d probably argue that it’s the weakest of Jimmy McGill’s outings, but that comes with the important caveat that it’s still very good, and oddly riveting.

The episode is responsible for a lot of setup that simply needs to be done, as until now Jimmy’s rivalry with Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill has been relegated to the background. It’s Hutchison’s job to catch us up and push that aspect of the story ahead.

It’s busywork, at least at its core. What salvages “Hero” is the fact that the show seems to revel in busywork…just like public defender Jimmy McGill. There may not be much at stake, but damned if we aren’t going to get a fireworks show.

The plot itself is simple: McGill buys and poses for a deliberately inflammatory billboard. I can’t go too much further than that without spoiling something, but I will say that once the episode comes to a close, it doesn’t actually amount to much more than what I just said. And that’s okay, because all throughout we’re sowing seeds for episodes to come.

We have lots of great character moments throughout, starting from the very beginning. Caught red handed, the Kettlemans hopelessly fumble their way through a justification for their crimes…one they obviously established a long time ago, and haven’t had to revisit since. That’s why when it’s finally verbalized it starts with some vague grandstanding about getting paid fairly for overtime and ends with them pointlessly reminding McGill that human slavery used to be legal.

It’s a well-observed moment; these people made a conscious choice to break the law, and reasoned themselves into a kind of comfort before doing so. What they were doing — they taught themselves to believe — wasn’t legal, but it was right. They talked about it and thought it through. They discussed it long into nightfall and then daylight. And once they convinced themselves, they never had to think about it again. Until now…when they reveal all their clever rationalizing to be hot air that no loner even convinces themselves.

Chuck also gets an incredible spotlight moment when he needs to venture out of the house to buy — not steal — a neighbor’s newspaper, in a sequence that I simply cannot describe without stripping it of all of its humor. Having said that, I absolutely need to gush over how wonderful it was that he not only left $5, but went to find a stone to weigh it down after it started to blow away. The return trip being shot from the neighbor’s perspective was just perfect, and that camera angle alone was probably responsible for my biggest laugh of the night. (I can’t wait for a spotlight episode on Michael McKean; I’m holding back most of my comments about his character until we learn a bit more.)

Also wonderful was McGill getting himself fitted for a decidedly Hamlin suit. At first I just assumed he was spending his windfall (more on that in a moment) on anything he’d need to look legitimate. A nice suit, certainly, would fit that bill. But then, after the tailor leaves, McGill wanders over to the shelves and starts considering hideous color combinations that hint at the Goodman within. Perfectly silent, and a perfect moment.

Actually, “Hero” is shot through with echoes of that character to come. We witness the earliest (chronologically speaking) occurrence of the name Saul Goodman, a deliberate pun on the part of a too-chummy Slippin’ Jimmy, and we’re reminded of something we learned in “Uno”: the fact that Jimmy McGill is not going to be able to practice law in Albuquerque under his real name. (Well, technically he can, but as the battle lines are drawn, it’s not unlikely that the change to Saul Goodman is the result of a fight poorly picked.)

But perhaps the biggest indication of what’s to come is how the night in the woods resolves itself. McGill does indeed offer to turn a blind eye to the money for a chance at representing the Kettlemans. He outright refuses a bribe, and offers, instead, his services.

It’s only when Mrs. Kettleman reminds him of something that he relents, and allows himself to be bought off. She reminds him, in a moment of perfect, inevitable heartbreak, that they won’t let him represent them…because he’s the kind of lawyer that guilty people hire.

I know he takes the money. I know how he accounted for it. (Literally.) And I know what he did with it.

But you know what?

Part of me truly hopes that there is some humanity in Jimmy McGill. That the fact that he seems to accept his status on the seedy end of the legal spectrum doesn’t suggest comfort or complicity.

No. I want to think that, on some level, he took the money because he wanted to change the fact that he was the kind of lawyer guilty people hire. The money could, as it does, buy him some valuable publicity. It could give him a platform he hasn’t had before. It could get him in front of the right kind of clients.

Buying himself into a living of doing public good isn’t the best way of getting there…but it’s a way.

Of course, we know who Jimmy becomes. What I’m hoping is that it takes him a little bit longer to get there, because nothing would thrill me more than seeing that the slippery slope to Saul Goodman appeared to him as a ladder to a better Jimmy McGill.

Some shows struggle at creating characters. Four episodes in, I wouldn’t blame Better Call Saul if that was the case here. But already these characters are already becoming people.

"Manos" The Hands of FateOn April 2, I will be hosting a live screening of the remastered version of “Manos” The Hands of Fate in Denver, CO. It’s to benefit The Trevor Project, there will be oodles of Noiseless Chatter swag available, and your ticket includes admission to a private, online event centering on a screening of The Room.

That’s right…even if you can’t make it out to Denver, you can buy a ticket, and have a hell of a time (while supporting a hell of a cause).

Thursday, April 02 8:30PM – 10:15PM
AMC Highlands Ranch 24
103 West Centennial Boulevard, Highlands Ranch, CO, 80129
$12.00 General

Tickets go on sale Friday, and you can get them here. You can also sign up for the event on Facebook by clicking here, but don’t forget to actually buy a ticket. Any sharing of the event to your like-minded friends is massively appreciated.

I’ll be writing a lot more about this in the coming weeks, but for now, I wanted to put it on your radar. You can read more about the event here, and I encourage you to do so, because this is going to be awesome.

It’s a great way to have an excellent night out (or night in…or both), contribute to a good cause, and snag yourself some Noiseless Chatter goodies.

I hope to see you there.

ALF, "Tonight, Tonight (Part 1)"

We ended last week on a riveting cliffhanger: would ALF really devote an entire second episode to showing clips of itself?

Well, breathe easy, dear reader. The answer is yes!

Of course, we can’t hold this against “Tonight, Tonight.” As I mentioned in the last review, this originally aired as a one-hour special. While one hour of continuous ALF clips sounds very much like my own personal hell, it’s not quite as self-indulgent as airing two half-hours of clips on back to back weeks. We also can’t hold it against “Tonight, Tonight” that this particular clip show opens with a recap of last week’s clip show. As fucking bizarre as that is, it’s a quirk of breaking it into time-slot friendly chunks for syndication. I’ll save my venom for the stuff the show actually does wrong, rather than the wrong that gets done to it down the line.

After a reprise of last week’s telephone chat with Johnny Carson, ALF attempts to console the legendary talk show host by offering to spend a night in a hot tub with him. So…that happens. (And I have a revised vision of my own personal hell.)

Again, we don’t hear Carson’s voice, which is fully expected in one way (God knows he was well above this shit), and yet really strange in another…but that observation won’t make sense until later, so I’ll get to it then.

Anyway, Ed McMahon’s first line in the episode is “You’re in big trouble, mister,” because he mistakenly believed he agreed to guest star in that show starring the more famous Tanners. ALF tells him to go fuck himself and then shows five full minutes of clips. Wow, we really blasted right through the episode, didn’t we?

ALF, "Tonight, Tonight (Part 1)"

This string of clips includes one I’ve never seen before. It’s obviously an outtake, because Brian is smiling, but other than that I have no idea what I’m looking at.

ALF pulls on a rope or something while Kate screams at him to stop. He doesn’t, which is hilarious to the recorded sounds of laughing dead people. Then some plaster falls on the table while she holds her son close, resigning herself to the fact that every one of them will die in this house.

I have no idea what episode that clip is from. When I reviewed season one I was stuck using syndication edits, but since then the episodes have been uncut. Maybe it’s something that was trimmed from a season one episode, or maybe it’s yet another case of an ALF clip show “reminding” us of something that hasn’t even aired yet. Guess where I’m laying my bet.

Then we’re back on the set of The Tonight Show, and ALF says he needs to go somewhere. He asks Ed to take over hosting duties, but thinks better of it when he realizes that he can just show clips of himself instead. That way nobody has to stand around asking, “Where’s Poochie?”

There’s a theme to this set of clips, too. “ALF leaving the room.”

No, I’m not joking. We really do get a string of clips that show ALF traveling from one room to the other.

Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and then answer honestly: did this shit really need to be one hour?

ALF, "Tonight, Tonight (Part 1)"

We come back, but ALF isn’t there. Fred De Cordova takes a seat so that he can respect sitcom blocking limitations and asks where ALF went.

“Who cares?” Ed McMahon replies. “At least he’s gone.”

Man, who would have guessed Ed McMahon would turn out to be my soul mate?

Fred’s raising a valid question, but it’s not the question I’m raising. See, I’d prefer to know why the fuck this is still airing. In their universe, The Tonight Show seems to be treated like a live program. I’m willing to accept that as an explanation of why ALF manages to get away with a bit more than he should.

I’m not, however, willing to accept that as an explanation of why they let him go apeshit on their stage for a solid hour in front of a national audience.

I know it’s not good form to interrupt live programming and replace it with something else. You really shouldn’t do it unless there’s some kind of exceptional reason to, but I guess I’m old fashioned because I’d consider a space alien wrecking up the place to fit that definition just fine.

Fred De Cordova shouldn’t be asking where ALF went. He should already have shut down production, and viewers at home should be halfway into a classic Carson rerun.

The number one rule of live television isn’t “don’t stop.” That might be rule number two. Rule number one, however, is don’t, under any circumstances, broadcast a live waste of everybody’s time.

You either need to admit defeat and abandon The Tonight Show with Gordon Shumway, or you need to stab ALF in the brain with a screwdriver and let Ed McMahon take over for the duration.

Anyway, we find out where ALF is and…

ALF, "Tonight, Tonight (Part 1)"

I don’t know what this is.

I don’t.

I have no motherfucking clue what the motherfuck I’m looking at.

I’m broken. ALF broke me. I’ve lost all faith in humanity and want to cry.

I assume this is some kind of stolen Carson bit. I’m also assuming, like “Melmac the Magnificent,” there’s no twist given to the original material at all. Paul Fusco must have a motivational poster on his wall that reads IMITATION IS THE HIGHEST FORM OF PUPPETRY.

I’m assuming there’s no twist because nothing in this sequence has anything to do with ALF, ALF, Melmac, or anything else specific to the character. And I’m assuming it’s a pre-existing Carson bit because ALF does a very obvious vocal impression of him while he sells vitamins or who the fuck fucking fuck fuck.

There is an attractive blonde (the screen grab doesn’t do her justice, I promise) who gets to stand there while ALF insults her repeatedly until the skit ends, at which point she’s required to rub him while he quivers with sexual excitement. It’s quality television.

I don’t have any idea who this woman is, but for fuck’s sake almighty she earned her paycheck.

ALF, "Tonight, Tonight (Part 1)"

Then we get a commercial break, with one of those illustrated title cards. It’s ALF as the Statue of Liberty, reminding you that there is no God. It’s also a near-exact copy of a title card from the previous episode, and a near-exact reprise of the Mt. Rushmore gag we see in a clip from “Hail to the Chief.” Even by clip show standards, this is some lazy-ass bullshit.

Back in host-mode, ALF calls Ed McMahon “Edipus.” That’s sure to lead to some interesting explanations from the parents of the kids watching at home.

Then he introduces another set of clips and…well, I’ve got to be honest: I like them.

No, I do. I mean it.

They’re clips of ALF reciting a bunch of my Melmac Facts, and that actually works.

See, Melmac lore* is far from important to the show, but it adds a lot of flavor. New viewers may enjoy having this unfamiliar culture fleshed out for them, and current fans may enjoy the reminders of all the little details they’ve forgotten. It’s a condensed history of a civilization that makes up a huge, largely-unspoken part of ALF’s background…and which we’ve never seen, outside of a single scene in “Help Me, Rhonda.”

This is one of the very, very few things that actually deserves to be recapped. What’s more…they’re actually funny. Unlike most clips — which are obviously carved from a larger storyline and therefore feel out of place — these work perfectly well in isolation. They’re setup and punchline in one, not weighed down by their original contexts in the show and perfectly suited to being parceled out.

In one of the clips, ALF says, “On Melmac, some guy called me a snitch just because I turned him in to the Secret Police.” That’s a damned solid line, and it doesn’t matter what episode it comes from.**

By no means am I arguing that ALF needed a clip show, but I will say that as long as ALF is doing a clip show, this is exactly the sort of thing it should contain. Especially when the alternative is clips of ALF falling off of things and burping.

ALF, "Tonight, Tonight (Part 1)"

Shockingly, this perfectly-good series of clips is followed by the framing story’s first legitimately funny moment.

Ed McMahon informs ALF that their next guest, Pope John Paul II, is waiting backstage. ALF says, “Great! Let’s bring him out!”

To the strains of Ave Maria, the curtains part to reveal His Holiness.

At which point ALF says, “…right after I play these clips,” and the curtain falls right back in the pope’s face.

It’s an easy visual gag, but it’s perfectly timed. It works because it has exactly the right rhythm. It’s also a great, absurd way to parody the conventions of the talk show format…which is what a better sitcom would have been doing all along, rather than having its lead character buy right into it with no interesting spin whatsoever.

A moment like this belongs…well, it belongs in a comedy. What does it say about “Tonight, Tonight” that this qualifies as an exception? Well, it says what it’s been saying all along: this isn’t a comedy. It’s Paul Fusco’s late night pitch package.

ALF, "Tonight, Tonight (Part 1)"

Very strangely, this selection of clips includes one of ALF murdering Willie’s uncle. Is that really something that needs to be spotlighted? Is causing the death of a nice old man truly one of ALF’s most beloved moments?

How strange.

Rich Little*** then shows up on the set of The Tonight Show because Carson called him and asked him to go take over from ALF. I’m sure glad Johnny gave a shit about the fact that they’re broadcasting this trainwreck live, because nobody else working on it seemed to.

But, of course, Rich doesn’t take over. He just shows off his Johnny Carson impression for a few lines and steps back so ALF can have the spotlight again.

ALF, "Tonight, Tonight (Part 1)"

…and this is why I’m confused by the fact that we didn’t hear Johnny on the phone earlier. If you’ve already paid Rich Little — and he’s already doing that impression in your episode — why not have him actually play Johnny in that conversation?

It’s weird that we have ALF doing a Carson impression, and then Little doing a Carson impression, but when Carson himself calls nobody is doing a Carson impression.

Maybe having Little-as-Little on the show instead of Little-as-Carson could have worked, but not just to trot him out and forget about him.

Perhaps Little could have done his Carson impression, just as he does here, followed immediately by ALF telling him that his impression sucks dick. Then the two of them could start competitively impersonating Johnny…kind of like Steve Coogan and Rob Bryden with their Michael Caine impressions in The Trip.****

But that would require Paul Fusco having to share the spotlight, and God fuckin’ forbid. Instead Little gets a few seconds to do his thing, and then we’re back to clips.


ALF, "Tonight, Tonight (Part 1)"

We get our final title card (mercy of small mercies), and then ALF says, “Let’s put it to a vote. Was this the best Tonight Show ever?”

The audience, of course, applauds wildly. See that, network executives? ALL THIS COULD BE YOURS

And that’s pretty much the end of the show. This half was far more clip-heavy than the first, which makes it feel lazier but also makes it a hell of a lot more watchable.

A friend pointed out to me last week that Fusco’s egotism is in overdrive here and, necessarily, in the “We Are Family” Late Night scene. After all, he doesn’t just make ALF the guest on a talk show — which certainly would have made a lot more sense in either context — he makes him the host. ALF isn’t just popular enough to be featured on great shows…in Fusco’s mind, ALF should be the great show. Not because he earned it, but because he’s ALF.

To Fusco, ALF is already “bigger” than his own show. He appears here not in a fantasy sequence or a dream or anything like that…he’s just ALF, the real-world celebrity. Notice who hasn’t been invited to this networking luncheon? That’s right…literally anybody else from the show ALF. By no means is ALF in this together with the Tanners. The moment he, and Fusco, can shed them, they will be shed.

ALF is a prefabricated icon, designed to be plugged into everything imaginable. That lousy sitcom that bears his name? That’s just one thing of many that he does…or will do. He’s destined for bigger things…not like those limited supporting players Max Wright, Anne Schedeen, Benji Gregory, or Andrea Elson. They should be glad to spend 80 hours a week in danger of breaking their spines for the honor of filming a show with him. They should be thanking him.

It says a lot that only ALF invites only himself to this hour-long celebration of ALF. The other actors could all have been killed in a bus accident (on their way, no doubt, to film on-location in the desert for “ALF’s Passable Passover”) and neither ALF nor Fusco would have been any worse for the loss. They were designed to be disposable.

In the comments for last week’s review, Casey reminded us that Kermit the Frog once hosted The Tonight Show. He was kind enough to leave a link, which I encourage you to click, but I confess I didn’t have the time to watch it between then and now.

I will, however, make a very confident assumption: it was a lot better than this.

ALF, "Tonight, Tonight (Part 1)"

Jim Henson was a skilled improvisor. He had to be; he worked with children an awful lot on Sesame Street. No matter how much you rehearse or write in advance, something is going to turn out differently than expected. Henson learned over the course of a long (but still far too short) career how to handle situations as they arose, and I can very easily see him making Kermit a fitting enough host for The Tonight Show.

Also worth noting, though, is that Henson was invited to perform Kermit as the host of that show. That, too, was the result of a career built on talent. Talent for comedy, talent for puppetry, talent for characterization. He advanced step by step through the entertainment world not because he forced it, but because there were people at every landing that recognized his talent and helped him forward.

Compare this, again, to the prefabricated nature of ALF. Kermit was invited to host The Tonight Show because The Tonight Show wanted him there; ALF was foisted upon The Tonight Show because Paul Fusco wanted him there.

But perhaps the most important difference is this: Kermit is a Muppet. ALF was just ALF. This meant that Kermit wasn’t some one-off oddity; he came with an entire world and culture behind him. And that world was populated by other Henson characters, as well as the characters of other performers. Kermit may well be the most famous Muppet, but if you ask 100 people about their favorite Muppet memories, you’re going to hear a lot about Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Cookie Monster, Bert and Ernie, Big Bird, Scooter, Oscar, Grover, Bunsen and Beaker, Rowlf, Statler and Waldorf…the list goes on.

Henson never wanted to be a celebrity as much as he wanted an outlet for his creativity. He wanted to experiment. He wanted to test his own boundaries. Sometimes, to be totally honest, he failed. But let me be totally honest once more when I say that that doesn’t matter. Henson is — and surely will be for a long time — loved, revered, and remembered. He was by all accounts a great man who cared about the work he did and inspired more lives and careers than we could ever hope to count. He didn’t want to rocket himself to stardom and spit on the people below; he wanted to take everyone along with him.

You know that scene at the end of The Muppet Movie? The one where they reprise “The Rainbow Connection” and we see a massive throng of Muppets crammed together, performing it? That was Henson’s idea of heaven. Everyone was there. Nobody was more important than anybody else. Everybody had something to be thankful for.

By contrast, you know those scenes that I recapped this week and last? The ones where ALF is the star and he gets off on bossing people around and pissing them off? That was Fusco’s idea of heaven.

I’ll end with one more very illustrative (in my humble opinion) difference between Fusco and Henson.

As I’ve mentioned before, Paul Fusco never wanted anyone to see ALF as a character, or a puppet. ALF was ALF. This caused Tina Fey no end of logistical headaches as a minor ALF appearance on the NBC Anniversary Special meant investing far too much planning in ways to get ALF into shot without anyone seeing that he wasn’t real. It also explains why in all of the ALF outtakes I’ve seen (yes, even the racially charged diatribes), Fusco stays in character as ALF; he doesn’t talk to his costars between takes, he talks to them through the puppet. Because ALF is real.

A few years ago, I read The Wisdom of Big Bird, which is an absolutely lovely little book by Caroll Spinney, who played and still plays that Muppet. He relayed a story that, at the time, struck me the same way it seemed to strike Caroll. I have to paraphrase, so I apologize for any details that I get wrong, but Caroll and Jim Henson were together in an office, talking about some issue or another on Sesame Street. Henson got up to get something, and in doing so he kicked the Ernie puppet out of the way. Caroll was aghast. Reading it, I was too. Caroll said, “You kicked Ernie.” And Jim Henson, flatly, said, “Caroll. It’s a puppet.”

Only now, seeing that as the polar opposite of Fusco’s attitude, does it make sense to me. Henson wasn’t being disrespectful to his creation. To us, yes, Ernie is a character, but to him, it’s a puppet. At least, it’s a puppet until he’s giving it life.

Ernie had no inherent right to popularity or success. He was a creation of felt, staples, and cloth. Whatever audiences saw in him (which was a lot, as evidenced by Caroll’s reaction to seeing him get kicked around) was not innate; it had to be brought about through hard work on Henson’s part.

In other words, Henson knew he had to earn everything. Ernie didn’t have to, Kermit didn’t have to, Guy Smiley didn’t have to. But Jim Henson had to. And the more he let himself remain aware of the fact that the puppets were nothing without his gift of life, the more invested he became in working hard to develop them, and to make them the enduring characters they still are today.

ALF didn’t endure. And ALF couldn’t endure. Because, as far as Paul Fusco was concerned, he was fine on his own.

There was no reason to work at it; ALF had a bright future ahead of him. It was just a question of getting him out there and letting it happen.

We all see where that got him.

* No relation to Adam.
** “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” though…just in case you were in danger of losing sleep.
*** I was curious about whether or not Rich Little was still alive. It turns out he is. In researching that fact, though, I discovered
Rich Little’s Christmas Carol. Forty five seconds of that garbage was enough to make me feel seasonal depression all over again. Look it up if you must…but know this: it’s so bad, even I am not cruel enough to include it in next year’s Xmas stream.
**** Or the same pair with their Al Pacino impressions in
Tristram Shandy. Both are highlights of their respective films.

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