Monday, October 25, 2010

Getting small in a big way

I just read Steve Martin's 2007 memoir BORN STANDING UP and encourage anybody creative to read it also, if you have not already.

If you're under, say 30, I don't know if it is possible to fully grasp the phenomenal sensation that his standup routines created in the mid 1970's. Like a lot of ephemeral pop entertainment, in hindsight the act itself doesn't pack the wallop it did at the time, though it is all still very funny. But for about five or six years, he was the life of the global party: the man of the moment; someone considered so uproariously funny that just to quote a fragment of one of his routines would invoke a kind of dizzy cheer. His act was so vivid, broad and delirious that somehow, he seemed oddly like a member of the family hiding behind the persona of a nearly innocent goof who might in fact be insanely smart.

If George Carlin hadn't used the title first, Steve Martin's  act could have been called OCCUPATION: FOOL,  (to me Carlin always seemed more of a pissed-off contrarian and nobody's fool); from the late 1960's on, Steve Martin's genial clowning had been a kind of staple of TV shows from supporting roles on THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS and SONNY & CHER to regular appearances on THE TONIGHT SHOW, all of which he documents here. Somewhere around the advent of his first SNL hosting gigs, his humor caught the general imagination and funnybone of the country in a way most performers can only dream about. It was a kind of harmonic event in media culture: the medium had finally caught up with what he was doing just as he was perfecting it. His stand up was a kind of sly, meta-comedy: full of corny old props, dated banjo music and general foolishness, but with a cerebral edge that drew attention to the inherent absurdity of performing in general, while simultaneously genuinely loving the corniest things about it. He made fun of performing while being terribly funny at it, with ebullient and childlike energy that it was infectious.

Interestingly, he catalogs the nearly two decades of relentless effort he spent "rehearsing" for his seemingly "overnight success" with a kind of refreshing candor : there is discouragement, anxiety (in the extreme sometimes), flashes of insight followed by long dry spells,  his foibles and faults as a person and a performer are all touched upon. None of this seems indulgent, instead he is generous with his debt to various contemporaries on the way up.  Very interesting to me is the fact that although he admits being initially inspired as a child by famous comedians like Jack Benny, he spends far more ink paying tribute to the unsung, unknown, or largely obscure theme park entertainers he first worked with as a teen in Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm, which suggests that he was innately as influenced by these talented unknowns as much if not more than any superstar.  At another point he documents a couple of salient bits of advice he picked up from a musty instructional pamphlet for budding magicians that are like lighting bolts even to read them today.

If any of this is applicable to cartooning and art in general, I suggest these two nuggets:

1.) that his own innate talent may have made his peak form seem effortless, but that was teased out one grain at a time over a long, long haul of trial and error that might seem familiar to anyone learning any creative trade. Even as he became something of a "name", prior to becoming a "somebody" he was basically a "nobody."  Giving up seemed like a viable option at several points, even immeidately before his stupendous headliner status. At that point, he then seemed to onlookers like me to be a thriving working minor comedy star; he was in fact, laboring diligently to stay barely afloat by working literally anywhere he could and continuing to both technically and creatively grope towards higher standards he set for himself. When his break finally came and his style gelled you get the feeling he certainly had earned his success. And it seems clear that he was aiming for creative success first and foremost, and not merely for fame.

2.): The amount of praise he has for his early mentors as a theme park "cast member" is genuine but it also indicates that he was building his core concepts, attitudes and values from talented folks he actually knew and liked and admired, even though they were far from famous. In doing so, he was either consciously or unconsciously forging a more original path than someone who might have been more inclined to primarily copy famous comedians everybody already knew and loved. To the extent he is aware of this, he says at one point that early on he realized that he would have to stop relying on old well-worn bits cribbed from over-exposed jokebooks and find his own comic voice. He admits this was not an easy revelation either, but it was necessary. In the same breath, he notes the importance of originality, which is also a hallmark of what made him inimitable as a comedian. I think in cartooning, there is a tendency to hew too closely to the established cannon (I like to call them "The Usual Suspects"), which tends to make the gene pool seem thinner than it needs to be.

This is a reminder to me, at least, and hopefully anyone else thinking about it, that while copying our heroes is natural and often a useful exercise, overdoing it can lead to mannerism as opposed to a genuine process. Inventing your own process is difficult and often discouraging because you are forced to discover by trial and error, but if you have the tenacity to endure it, (as opposed to simple stubbornness), it can be very rewarding.
(thanks Robin!)

Monday, October 18, 2010

Two of my favorite sources of inspiration

I met MIKE SMITH about a dozen years ago, thru my good pal Rej Bourdages. Mike is a wonderfully talented guy: a human tsunami of a dizzying variety of styles and ideas. I watched him storyboard a soft drink ad featuring a giant monster skulking thru a city and I could not get over how seemingly effortless he made it all look... I discovered a his website awhile back and got back in touch, glad to know he is as brilliant as ever...

One of the music videos Mike directed and designed for George Thurogood is a classic example of Mike's dazzling style, and it also happens to feature animation that I suspected could have only been done by another friend, colleague and source of endless inspiration: DAVE FEISS. I caught up with Dave for lunch a month ago or so and it turns out he indeed collaborated with Mike on the video. Of course Dave is best known for his hilariously demented COW & CHICKEN series from CN, but I will never forget spotting some earlier standout comic book work he did for the series THE MAXX, where he ghosted a dream sequence, (turns out THE MAXX creator is a relative of Dave's and they jammed together just for fun.)  I finally got to work with Dave a few years ago and the whole time I was almost dizzy with admiration for him. A genuine cartoonists' cartoonist if ever there was one.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Butler that didn't...

"Edgar" in Disney's THE ARISTOCATS is one of those great tour-de-fource Milt Kahl characters that shows off the animator's raw talent and skill in a less-than-excellent film. I've always liked the character tho, who was voiced by British comedian Roddy Maude-Roxby, and probably modeled more or less on Arthur Treacher, the gold-standard bearer of Hollywood character actor English butlers. Disney legend Burny Mattinson once mentioned to me that around the same time there was an ongoing interest to get Robert Morely, another great UK talent to do a voice for a Disney character over the course of several films, but Mr. Morley, whose mobile face was even more expressive than his spectacularly unique voice, was apparently completely dis-interested is seeing himself animated. Still, possibly Morley's paunchy frame and expressive face guided this character to some extent...

Michael Hordern, a less well known but every bit as wonderful actor always somewhat reminds me of "Edgar"as well, but I have no idea if he provided any influence. Hordern was a masterful UK stage actor, featured in many great Shaekspearean roles on stage and the small screen, but his movie appearances were generally 2nd or 3rd tier supporting character roles. One memorable such performance can be seen in Richard Lester's uneven but enjoyable adaptation of the Broadway burlesque A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM (1967), where Hordern plays the horny, hen-pecked head of a household next door to a tempting brothel. I have seen that show performed on stage many times and the father is always played as the broadest comic character in a show full of broad and comic types, but Hordern goes about it in his signature understated style that steals every scene he's in.

Co-incidentally a Netflix search of his name turned up an intriguing made for TV comedy from England called FUTTOCK'S END starring Ronnie Barker. I can't reccommend it, it is singularly lousy and boring, but in the story (played entirely in pantomime) Hordern plays a dodgy butler who goes about on a motor scooter, albeit one without a sidecar. I was kind of flabbergasted at some of the similarities to the ARISTOCATS' character even still. Here's a few frame grabs...
Butler Hordern in FUTTOCK' END

Did this influence the cartoon character? Not terribly likely: both films were made at the roughly the same time and released in the same year (1970). Although MONTY PYTHON would be a cornerstone of PBS a few years later, English comedy shows were rarely shown on TV in the USA back then so it is doubtful anyone laboring away in Burbank would have seen it. It still is a funny co-incidence. Almost as intriguing as this one was a model sheet I once saw for Milt Kahl's conception of "Flewder Flamm," the bumbling bard in THE BLACK CAULDRON. That design looked for all intents and purposes EXACTLY like Michael Hordern to me. Maybe Milt Kahl liked this actor too, but who knows? That design was unused, (I don't own a copy of it) and both men are long gone, alas. 

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


I like to think that I'm never too busy to doodle, but lately that's the case. These are mostly from way back in May I think...

JIM TYER FANS REJOICE: ASIFA Hollywood Archive delivers!

My pal Dave Nethery has directed our attention to the esteemed Asifa Hollywood Archive blog, where a series of Jim Tyer storyboard drawings are on display! Not quite the same as having actual animation ruffs, but in any case, we get to see both ruff and finished artwork by him, both of which offer a peek into his process. Check it out....LINK!