Friday, January 25, 2008

The Joey Bishop factor

A minor skit from a lesser season of Saturday Night Live (circa early '80's) stands out in my memory for being a very astute observation of a situation I don't think I've seen explored in comedy much before or since:

(Bear with me if I get any of this wrong, including casting. I only saw it once and that was nearly thirty years ago.)

Young married couple A (Bill Murray and Gilda Radner) have enjoyed a dull but pleasant evening on the town with young married couple B, (Harry Shearer and Larraine Newman) who are their new neighbors. They're back in couple A's apartment making awkward small talk over coffee but it is clear the two couples don't have much in common and they are winding down an evening they are not likely to repeat. Casually, couple B notice a souvenir ashtray with a Vegas hotel logo: they've stayed there too. Couple A mention they saw comedian Joey Bishop perform there recently. Couple B brighten noticeably: they're big fans of Joey Bishop. Couple A warm up in kind; they're big Joey Bishop fans too. They confess they don't just like Joey Bishop, they love him! Same with couple B--they worship him! Within a few exchanges it turns out they are clearly the four most Joey Bishop-obsessed human beings on earth. They are trading movie quotes, stand-up routines, even singing the theme tune from Bishop's short-lived sitcom. One of the husbands does a verbatim impression of Guy Marks, Bishop's erstwhile sidekick. No detail of Joey Bishop's career is too obscure or trivial for these four not to cherish. The two couples are now deeply bonding and the atmosphere has gone from tepid to frenzied mutual joy. They pledge to see his next live tour together and appear to be starting a long, beautiful friendship.

Catching their breath for a beat, couple B ask if couple A saw Bishop's most recent appearance and Couple A confirm they were there the same night. Did they see the late show or the early show? Both shows, say couple A, of course! Couple B admit they saw both shows too, they only asked because they thought Bishop gave a better performance in the late show. The mood suddenly chills: what do they mean, couple A wonder? Couple B reiterate that they thought the late show was superior and they felt Joey Bishop was generally sharper and more warmed up during the late shows. Frosty now: couple A go on the defensive: Joey Bishop is a professional, the consummate entertainer, he never goes on without being warmed up; he's always sharp! Couple B won't relent: for technical reasons that are no fault of his own, Joey Bishop is at his best in his late shows, period. Not so, couple A insist; he's never ever not at his best! Now there's a chasm of difference between them and the evening dissolves very quickly: excuses are made, coats are grabbed and couple B hurry home, permanently alienated from couple A. Couple A are non-plussed and shake off the bad mood by deciding to watch an old videotape of one of Joey Bishop's shows.

I bring this up because some of the comments regarding this flap involving my observations about Chuck Jones remind me of this skit: how details in the devotion to a particular figure (even someone as low-key as Joey Bishop) can become a source of contention that creates a schism between groups who fundamentally feel the same way, but not fundamentally enough to suit all parties. It somehow never ceases to amaze me.

I welcome all the comments and dissent but it appears that some have felt it near blasphemy to make critical comments about an such an icon and a few can't brook a sensible discussion of relative merit without hammering back with an unrelenting defense of every single pencil stroke the man ever made. That would be understandable to me if the point of my post was merely to state a provocatively critical opinion of mine strictly for it's own sake. For the most part, I think it's clear enough that wasn't my object, but just in case: 

The idea of an artist improving is still a cherished one to me, and there are many of examples which have been cited in the comments. In the cases where a decline (or even a shift) occurs in an artist's signature process, I am curious about that. One individual on CARTOON BREW scoffs that this whole question is a waste of time. They're entitled to that opinion but I see they took at least 3 times the length of Amid's post to say so, which I find ironic. That aside, I do enjoy entertaining philosophical questions about drawing and art and I can't help it. If there's something we can learn from this and apply to our own art, then that's no small value, in my opinion. I chose Chuck Jones as an example not to single him out, but because unlike other cases I could site, he was still around and active when I began my career and I even had some minor first-hand experience of him.  Since he inspired me a great deal, I remain curious about his artistic process and because I believe in being self-critical, I also can't help but want to understand merits and flaws in the works of even my heroes, in my own quest to improve. I think I am not alone in this.

I've been told, (among other things), that I need to understand the difference between a rough sketch and a finished drawing but with all due respect, I think I can actually grasp that, having done a few myself, even though I am well aware I am no Chuck Jones.  Even the later artwork I don't like by Jones still displays a sense of his impeccable rhythm and spontaneity, which I can plainly see and appreciate. The mystery remains however: why an artist with an almost unrivaled arsenal of varied and ever-expanding character design and posing abilities would settle into a pattern of routine (and frankly bland) formulas, based on a single and repetitive armature of fairly even and uninteresting (to me anyway) proportions? Especially when he was not only not prone to do that before, but was capable of otherwise even in contemporary situations? I offer that the circumstances of production affected the output and I remain convinced of it, which doesn't seem that objectionable a view to hold. Rather, it suggests to me that an artist who remains in love with his process, (and I suspect Chuck  Jones was still passionately more in love with animation than any other process) can remain vital as long as time and physical health permit. 


Kevin Williams said...

Y'know, after reading Chuck Amok, the thing that impressed me the most was how little time Chuck spent talking about his own skills, and how much time he talked about his influences, inspirations, and the people around him who supported him even when he was flat out terrible.

Chuck was genuinely surprised when old animation drawings had six figure price tags attached, and he wrote about how much he owed his coworkers for the acclaim that he was getting.

I like cartoons. I like making them, I like watching them.

The day we have to attach the word "fundamentalism" to animation, we're taking ourselves way to seriously.

Larry Levine said...

Hi Will, Guessing I'm the individual you're referring to.

My discussing the rough sketches Chuck drew for the cels was to make the point unlike his classic layouts which in most cases were sole tempted renditions for each pose, Chuck was working much differently on the limiteds and that may of affected his looser style on some.

I never scoffed this discussion was a waste of time, just the opposite,I think it posed an excellent question, which is impossible to answer.

Why did Chaplin start making films like Limelight? The answer is--there is no answer. Artists grow in different directions. I can like Monsieur Verdoux which doesn't mean it's better than Modern Times, but as a Chaplin fan I'm glad it exists on it's own merits. A long ago film critic named James Agee said upon reviewing the Marx Bros in A Night in Casablanca that their worst is still better than most anyone else's best. Some may agree to that, some may not, some may not even like Duck Soup. Same with this.

I feel terrible if you took anything personally, I was writing open letters, they were never meant to be directed towards you. I found your posts very thoughtful & glad that you opened this discussion. I hope you will still consider writing a post on your time at CJFP.

Amy said...

Yeah, well, Cartoon Brew tends to attract some of the more frothingly opinionated people, ya just gotta filter them out. ;)

Anyone with any sense of moderation can see you weren't getting on some high horse.

Chuck still rules! :)

Will Finn said...

Kevin--Chuck was indeed generous with his praise toward others, in person and in text. Lucky we are he put his story into his own words before someone else did it for him.

Not to nit pick this bit any further, but i used the word "fundamentally" which is does not infer "fundamentalism". Not fundamentally anyway.

I do get a lot of people telling me I think way too much about this stuff. My wife for one.

Larry--No offense taken, none meant to be given. I know your defense of Chuck Jones is genuine. The "waste of time" comment was by somebody else and there are several folks here and elsewhere who appear to sense something presumptuous about this whole thing that I didn't intend to cultivate. Unfortunately the longer I talk about it the more fractured the prism of this story gets. I will get to some anecdotes soon, but after this dies down. He was (in addition to everything else) a world-class conversationalist and public speaker.

Will Finn said...

Amy, you're right, i probably need to change my filter. Given that I'm not likely to ever be as good as Chuck, I probably shouldn't worry too much about the defects I've perceived and should do a better job concentrating on his strengths.

It just occurs to me that this obsessive train of thought may all stem from the fact I haven't gotten to do much animation in a long LONG time and I miss the ol' process dearly.

Pete Emslie said...

After reading this latest post, it brought to mind something Mike Barrier had posted not too long ago regarding the internet and the inherent nastiness that pops up in online discussions, leading to a disinclination toward honest, critical discourse and instead leading to rather innocuous and banal "shop talk", as he so accurately put it. Funnily enough, Mike himself has just referenced that thread in regard to what's going on over here on your site, Will.

It really is too bad that attempts to start honest and critical discussions online does lead to so many noses being put out of joint. I've certainly been involved in a number of such internet brouhahas over on Animation Nation and Cartoon Brew in the past. In my case it was my bluntly honest assessments of such things as anime and Flash animation that got me into hot water, even though in both cases I took great pains to explain in great detail exactly what it is that I find unsatisfying about those particular subjects. It seems that when some people don't agree with your opinion, it is not enough for them to merely counter it with their own opinion, but rather, they like to belittle and even villify you as well. Had I simply dismissed either Flash or anime with a simple "It sucks!", I could understand people's wrath, but I was giving well reasoned arguments for my opinion.

The fact is, Will, you really can't win on the internet. It seems to bring about a lot of misinterpretation and hostility from those who would rather nitpick every detail of your stand on a subject rather than just understanding the gist of what you're trying to say. What I find particularly frustrating is those who accuse me of "generalizing" on a subject. Quite honestly, I don't know how one can have an opinion about anything without generalizing to some degree in putting forth a well-reasoned argument. Anyway, don't let it get to you, Will. Many of those involved in internet discussions have no patience for dissent and big chips on their shoulders. Though of course I'm generalizing. :)

Will Finn said...

Thanks Pete, i think i may be guilty of overkill by now on this, but I do think the majority of readers took something away from this discussion. Honestly I never intended it to get this wide, but maybe the elements of the post were too high profile for it not to, and for passions to rise in the process. I was only trying to use a high profile example because I thought it would be common ground, not because I wanted to inspire controversy.

In fact tho, i don't feel this turned into the vicious brawl other topics elsewhere have wrought. My own comments on BEOWULF at CARTOON BREW were regrettable and I should have known better than to leap in on such a nuanced subject in a forum that doesn't register nuance well.

In this case I mainly wanted to make sure the point was clear and that we can sometimes learn a little from critical study of our heroes as well as simply loving them for who they are.

I never liked chat rooms or message boards, but I still love blogging, warts and all.

Mike Caracappa said...

Hey Will,

I'd rather you kept posting your opinions about your feelings on this stuff. It is nice to hear an honest opinion from a professional animator, because as much as I love American animation, there is a lot of really conceited, annoying crap that gone on (and still goes on) in the industry that needs to be talked about. Even if it's something as small as a discussion about Chuck's later work, I think your still saying something about what happens when an artist starts falling for their own formulas. It's disheartening to know that about one of animations great heroes, but I think it's important. So don't let a couple of egos on your board distract you from what you have to say, because there are a few of us listening.

Will Finn said...

Michael, thanks also. I think i may have exhausted the topic, or at least my take on it for now. let's put it this way: I'm exhausted about it.

Other than being misunderstood here and there, the only thing i regret is the "who the crap are these guys?" caption because I am nowhere in a position to appear to ridicule (in public no less) a great artist in a whole league apart from me. And that doing it invites ridicule from others in public is even more regrettable. It's not the kind of language i'd use more openly and until Amid linked to it, I never expected more than a few regular readers to see it, Even then it's too cheap a shot to be appropriate for the web.

BillRiling said...

Besides Will, everyone knows Joey Bishop couldn't draw to save his life..

Uncle Phil said...

Hey Will,

I just wanted to say that I've really been enjoying this discussion. I think that we both have similar interests and ideas about animation as art, and animators as arists. And above all, we're all living, breathing human beings that are influenced by a personal and unique world around us. It's not about whether Chuck got "better or worse," it's about change. And in that change lies a moment that is unique to Chuck Jones and only Chuck Jones. And that's just damned fascinating... too me anyway (and, i believe, to you too).

Thanks for the great post.

mark kennedy said...

It is truly amazing how vociferous, opinionated and strident people can get about....cartoons. It never ceases to amaze me and it makes blogging a lot of pressure. You don;t dare write a half-assed post about something you're unsure about, right?

I never got the feeling that you were disrespecting Chuck at all. What I sensed more than anything was the fear we all have of losing our critical faculties and starting to think that our work is great when it's not. That's worse than death for an artist - it would be better to disappear before we begin to taint our prime work with something that is not as good.

I am really glad that you're willing to talk about this stuff and share all of your thoughts with the world. There aren't nearly enough artists talking openly and honestly on the internet about creating and surviving as an artist, and it will never be easy and there will always be hot button topics, but at least that proves there are still people passionate about great animation. When people stop being passionate about it then things will be depressing indeed.

Mike Caracappa said...

I didn't think you were ridiculing him when you wrote the caption. The drawing isn't funny. It's totally out of character, and frankly, a little self-indulgent. We both know he's better than that, so it's frustrating as hell to see a great master take a cheap shot at his characters. I love Chuck Jones for his early work up until the 60's, but I feel he started to lose something later in his career. A lot of other people I've talked to feel that way too.

I'd like to be a little candid for a moment. I know you're a top animator, and it must seem taboo to argue something in public about one of the great masters. But I don't know how it's going to help a younger generation of animators if, because of your position, you start worrying too much about what you say. You don't have be all out liberal like John K., but most animators in your position would be too afraid to say anything, as if it would destroy their reputation. It's annoying when somebody says something, then suddenly going back on their word and tries to convince everyone they didn't say it. If someone like yourself doesn't like something (especially about a master artist) and comments on it, I'm willing to believe there's a good reason behind it. In fact, I think it shows your love for Chucks work more that you're willing to take a critical shot.

I trust your opinion, and I'd rather you were honest with us than not say anything at all.

Will Finn said...

Well honestly Mike, I hope it's clear I'm not trying to recant everything: i feel the use of the drawing was proper, and I stand by words like "creakier and stiffer" despite the fact others dispute it. Still feel that way, sorry, even though it's also true when I tracked the drawing down it wasn't as bad as my memory of it.

But the tone of that caption crossed the line from critical to insulting and it encouraged others to do same, in public no less. he deserved better and he displayed better (as Kevin has pointed out) and i know it all too well. it discolored the point and threw the piece off target. I know better from experience and my regret of that small but featured line is sincere.

I know at least one site is trying to spin this as a backslide and i have plenty to say about that soon. And i will not be mincing words, believe me.

Jenny said...

Will, I'm certain(as I can be about anything internet-related)that the vast majority of readers can discern your point--your ORIGINAL point--and also not attribute to you the less gracious remarks of anyone else in response.

I second everything Mark said(I do that a lot it seems!); as for any concern about "backtracking"--well, hell--all I see is the importance of wanting to be truly understood. No harm or embarrassment or anything but rightness in that. It's not 'backtracking' or covering one's arse at all, not here. If people don't see it that way, well, they're mistaken.

It's a worthy topic and few if any artists address it(I think Mark may have).
Thanks so much for doing so.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Great post about Joey Bishop and intolerance! On the subject of age, in my opinion Chuck just got old, which happens to all of us. A few old people age well but it might be a mistake to extrapolate that we can all do that. Maybe the lucky ones just had the right genes.

Age is an interesting subject, because it's so little understood.