Remembering The Irreplaceable Marcia Wallace

A few days ago we lost Marcia Wallace, one of the finest voice actors of any era and a simply tremendous, Emmy-winning comedian. She was what no good sitcom could do without: a supporting talent who brought the world of the show to life in vivid detail. From acidic, man-crazed receptionist Carol Kester at Dr. Hartley’s office in The Bob Newhart Show (a part written just for her) to lonely, soulful elementary school teacher Edna Krabappel on The Simpsons, she delighted each generation of TV viewers anew.

http://youtu.be/_m7q3xIvN48

What you may not know is that Wallace also made appearances on almost every series of note from the early 1970s on, including BewitchedThe Brady Bunch, Columbo, The Love Boat, Magnum, P.I., Murder, She Wrote, and ALF. As a sassy White House maid, she was the saving grace of short-lived Trey Parker and Matt Stone show That’s My Bush!—unfortunately, there’s no YouTube evidence of it. But this Simpsons montage of Mrs. Krabappel’s signature, tart, one-note laugh is a fitting tribute to her sense of character and killer timing.

http://youtu.be/WLNkbRvraho

Perhaps the only thing as wonderful as her performances was Wallace herself, a long-time survivor of and activist against breast cancer, and a warm person who nonetheless didn’t mince words. Check out this short interview in which she rolls her eyes at the concept of so-called “reality” TV at a time when that’s all anyone seems able to talk about. We hope scripts come back into fashion, too, Marcia.

Pop-Culture Parody Musicals Are as Meta as We Get

Growing up in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, I had really weird taste in music. Sure, I liked whatever the Top 40 pop hits were, but I also belted out showtunes, and I had every word memorized of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s song parodies. Through his ode to food “Eat It,” I learned how badass young Michael Jackson was. Likewise, I would never have known what “MacArthur Park” without the cheeky "Jurassic Park.”

In a 2003 interview with NPR, Yankovic mused on how his fellow artists would respond as he prepped each album of song parodies. “At this point I’ve got a bit of a track record,” he said. “So people realize that when ‘Weird Al’ wants to go parody, it’s not meant to make them look bad… it’s meant to be a tribute.”

While it seems as if “Weird Al” has hung up the accordion for the time being, there are plenty of creative teams who have adopted that same motivation of writing silly lyrics to poke fun at pop culture and elevated it to the next logical incarnation—the musical. In the past few years, more and more pop culture parody musicals have popped up on the Internet, in universities, and even off-Broadway. They’ve launched the careers of stars like Darren Criss (who played the starring role in A Very Potter Musical), and even famous folks like Joss Whedon (with Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog) have joined in.

Pop culture has passed into an incredibly self-reflective and meta phase. We can’t watch a TV show or political debate without immediately reacting through GIF form and then scrutinizing our reaction. We’re compelled to interrogate the highbrow and especially the lowbrow works that capture our attention. But it gets boring and one-dimensional to use the same medium that we’re discussing in our analysis. We’re constantly turning our opinions over and over, seeking out the smart new angle that someone hasn’t thought of. Enter this new breed of musical.

We’re lucky that many of these productions have tested the waters in New York City, where you can stage an outrageous parody for even just a weekend. In the past year, I’ve taken in four shows that probe the boundaries of good taste and challenge the books, actors, and even religious institutions they mock. Last Christmas, I joined the throngs of theatergoers laughing so hard they were crying at Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s The Book of Mormon. Since the, I’ve also giggled my way through song-and-dance parodies of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, its offspring Fifty Shades of Grey, and the ‘90s thriller The Silence of the Lambs.

Whether each show’s attack is sweet or snarky, there is indeed that sense of tribute that Yankovic mentioned—cheeky nods to the genre of musical theater itself, or a hat tip to the impact Clarice Starling or Anastasia Steele has had on pop culture. In fact, 50 Shades! The Musical pokes fun less at Ana’s whirlwind romance with Christian Grey, and more at the way Americans have gobbled up E.L. James’ erotic fanfiction.

“I think anything that is so popular that everyone knows about it, you can start to home in on certain details,” said Emily Dorezas, one of the 50 Shades co-writers. “That’s why, as soon as the presidential election starts, everybody can laugh at the same things about the different candidates. Fifty Shades of Grey is just this brand that doesn’t go away. Even if you know nothing about it, you know everything about it. Part of what we’re doing is making fun of the phenomenon of it. [Audiences] can laugh at that because they’ve seen it in their house, with their wives and girlfriends.”

Twilight: The Musical employs a similar shorthand: They’re betting on audiences’ familiarity with the movies so that they can skewer not only Bella Swan and Edward Cullen, but also Robert Pattinson’s insanely dramatic delivery and Kristen Stewart’s penchant for lip biting. The more layers you can work through, the better you’re rewarded, like when Edward and Bella’s literary contemporaries Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, and Hermione Granger pop in to declare a wizards-versus-vampires war.

When you’re addressing the young adult fiction booms of the past fifteen years, of course you have to poke fun at the consumers who waited in line at midnight for the new books and movies. But how do you mock a solid film classic from the ‘90s that’s entirely straight-faced and even rather terrifying? You make it self-aware.

What most struck me about Silence! The Musical (which has existed online and onstage since 2002) is that it follows the movie beat-for-beat. I was especially aware because I had watched the film for the first time just a few weeks prior. Aside from the addition of a lamb chorus—paralleling the ancient Greek chorus and performing the same duty of commenting on the action onstage—the musical starts and ends where the movie does. Watching it, you’re delightfully surprised to realize that it is kind of ridiculous to start a movie with Jodie Foster huffing and puffing through the woods near Quantico, and that most of Anthony Hopkins’ dialogue is snarky one-liners. The cast turns even the most innocuous phrasing into a punchline; currently, Pamela Bob amps up Clarice’s unfortunate lisp to an art form.

The decision to do a shot-for-shot spoof had less to do with the movie itself and more with how co-writers Jon and Al Kaplan write all of their parodies. “We’re very detail-oriented,” the brothers said of what began as a collection of songs and evolved into a screenplay. “We focus on details and blow them up. It’s meant to be a love letter to the movie; we want to tailor it to people who are big fans.” It helped that Hunter Bell, who wrote the book for the stage show, and original director Christopher Gattelli had the same M.O.: “They love the movie and wanted to focus on the details—sometimes different details [from us].”

To be fair, the brothers were wary of audience reaction to some of the songs. But when the original movie brings Lecter and Clarice together after another inmate comments on her vagina, how can you not give Lecter a love song called “If I Could Smell Her Cunt”? However, it wasn’t until Book of Mormon opened in 2010 that the Kaplans felt more secure about their bawdier musical numbers.

“I think we’re proudest of Lecter’s song,” the Kaplans said. “It’s not the typical song you would expect from him, the ‘liver and fava beans’ number. It’s the moment where the audience really has to buy into the concept or not buy into it. It has to be well performed; Lecter has to really sell it as a love song. We’re also proud of Buffalo Bill’s song ‘I’d Fuck Me’ because it came late in the game. We felt like we had already written our Buffalo Bill songs.”

”I’d Fuck Me” represents perhaps the closest adherence to the source material. Our audience was on the edge of their seats during this swirly burlesque number because we all knew the iconic sequence from the film and were waiting with bated breath to see if David Ayers would attempt the infamous dick tuck. When he did, that prompted the most cheers out of any point in the show. Honestly, we wouldn’t have respected the creative team if they hadn’t included that moment.

Each of these shows has unlocked a new take on the source material through the medium of the musical. The visual nature of a stage show has been most beneficial for 50 Shades! The Musical. One of the book’s most ludicrous elements was Anastasia’s “inner goddess,” the subconscious manifestation of her repressed horniness. Sadly, she was absent from the New York production, but Dorezas said that she showed up in Chicago in “a scene with Christian and Anastasia, [where] the inner goddess comes in and basks to have this whole moment to herself,” and that she’ll appear in future iterations.

Some of the most fun that the 50 Shades! The Musical cast and creative team had was subverting the audience’s expectations of the characters’ appearances. For the past year or more, fansites have cast achingly smoldering types like Ian Somerhalder and Alexis Bledel for Christian and Ana, but what makes Chris Grace and Amber Petty’s portrayals so refreshing is that neither are stereotypical beauties. They play up the comedic contrast between the prose and their onstage looks and behavior.

“It was totally a conscious decision,” Dorezas confirmed. “I don’t think anybody’s gonna be 100 percent satisfied with whatever Christian Grey they choose [for the movie]. We just wanted to go the complete opposite direction, but Chris plays it so sexy, and he owns it! There’s a certain point where it’s like, ‘This is our Christian Grey, and everyone in the audience is sold on it.’

”It’s always my favorite when he walks onstage for the first time, ‘cause you see the audience pointing at each other like, ‘Oh my God, this isn’t what you said!’ I know they think Ryan Gosling is gonna come out there. I think in Chris’ mind, he thinks he’s Ryan Gosling. And Amber as Anastasia—she’s so funny. We wanted it to be more of a wink at these characters, not the actual characters. I think if we went for super hot and sexy, we’d lose funny.”

Similarly, the writers grappled with the first draft because if they gave in to the temptation to absolutely skewer James’s admittedly ridiculous novel, they wouldn’t be able to keep an audience. “I think the first round, we felt like there was just too much punch and not enough heart to it,” Dorezas said, citing their shared experience in the comedy world. “We wanted the audience to want these two people to be together outside of a bondage/S&M situation.”

The parody can’t just be about the content; the creative teams must also consider conventions of musical theater itself. One of the first big laughs in The Book of Mormon is “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” a seemingly joyous African chant that brings to mind The Lion King’s “Hakuna Matata” but actually translates to “Fuck You, God.” Mocking religion was one thing, but dragging the esteemed medium of musical theater into the mix? That’s when audiences realized that no one was safe.

In the New York production of 50 Shades! The Musical, the inner goddess got sacrificed in favor of a big, Les Miserables-esque ensemble number. “We just had to find another place for the inner goddess, ‘cause we all were like, ‘Ah, we want this moment where everyone’s having doubt and not sure what to do,’” Dorezas said. “There’s a nod to Phantom of the Opera in the show, as well. We definitely put little things in there that even if you’re not a fan of Fifty Shades of Grey, if you’re a fan of musicals you’ll appreciate the moments as well. If some of the moments are too insidery—you don’t know who Jose is when he walks in, you don’t know Christian is against type—there’s still something for you.”

The Kaplan brothers’ nods to musical theater occur more in the fabric of the musical’s choreography: “It’s just integrating little homages here and there. There’s A Chorus Line in ‘In the Dark with a Maniac,’ [with] the dance move that Clarice does before she shoots Buffalo Bill. There’s also [elements from] The King and I.”

Now, a lot of the musical theater greats are dead and can’t defend themselves against this mockery. But how about the creators of the books and movies parodied? Despite the hard-R nature of Silence! The Musical, the Kaplans said that several of the people involved with the movie found it uproariously funny.

For one, director Jonathan Demme decided to celebrate his twenty-year crew reunion by going to the show. “We sat behind them, and they were laughing their heads off,” the Kaplans said. “It was a real kick… We thought he was gonna be a really serious guy, just sitting there scowling, but he’s got a real sense of humor.” They can’t vouch for Jodie Foster’s reaction, since she attended a different show. However, “Anthony Heald, who played Dr. Chilton, was very enthusiastic, said he would love to play his character in a future reincarnation of the show. Anthony Hopkins, as far as we know, hasn’t gone.”

”We did look toward Silence! The Musical a little bit in terms of what they were able to get away with,” Dorezas said. Because the original production of 50 Shades! The Musical debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, they’ve been caught up with UK copyright laws, combined with the reaction from James’ people. “For the UK opportunities that we are currently discussing, we could change some things around with the show that would make it fall under safe parameters,” Dorezas said. “If the parody laws change in our favor, then we would not have to do that. We have an idea of what we can do, but we’re kind of waiting to see how it changes.”

Musical parody reinvigorates seemingly played-out stories because it’s such an unexpected medium. It’s likely that the first time you saw Clarice Starling or read about Christian Grey, you never dreamed that either would break into song. These pop culture parody musicals crack these seemingly solemn characters and give them the added dimensions to ensure their endurance in the zeitgeist, whether they’re twenty or two years old. As the Kaplans confessed, “We never thought we’d be talking about this eleven years after the fact.”

Follow Natalie Zutter on Twitter.

Morning Links: Jennifer Lopez’s Onstage Breakdown, Madonna’s Homeless Brother

● Jennifer Lopez fled the stage, teary and lovelorn, after an emotional performance of “If You Had My Love,” before which she’d told the audience it was “the first” song she ever wrote about love. “A lot has changed since then,” she added. [Radar] ● Six years after their infamous 2005 Xenu-slaying episode, “Trapped In The Closet,” South Park‘s Trey Parker and Matt Stone (and their friends and family) have begun to feel the heat of an extensive Scientology sting. [VV] ● Christina Milian and The-Dream are now and finally officially divorced. That Alexander McQueen riding-pant tux Terrius wore to say “I do,” though, is forever. [TMZ]

● One of Madonna’s older brothers says that his “multibazillionarie” sister has turner her back on him, leaving him homeless and living under a bridge in Traverse City, Michigan. [Gawker] ● It seems safe to say that Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds are very much a thing. [People] ● Paranormal Activity 3 — which cost all of $5 million to make — has chalked up the biggest horror opening ever, drawing $54 million in its first weekend in theaters. [Deadline]

Morning Links: Selena Gomez Checked Into Hospital, Taylor Momsen Flashes Audience

● Selena Gomez checked into a hospital complaining of “nausea and a severe headache” after her appearance on The Tonight Show. Jay Leno gives us migraines, too. #getwellsoonselena [DailyMail] ● Last night was a big one for live-tweet aficionados: there were a lot of theater jokes, a lot of basketball jokes, and a lot of jokes about all the bad jokes. The Book of Mormon won nine Tonys, and on the court, the Mavericks beat Lebron James and the Miami Heat, taking home their first championship trophy (and some cool wide-brims). [NYT/NYT] ● Demi Lovato’s worst-life-ever continues, with her mom now in rehab and her boyfriend, Wilmer Valderrama, now her ex. Sometimes things don’t get better… [Page Six]

● Lilly Allen walked down the aisle with her pregnant belly on full display last weekend for her wedding to Sam Cooper, where she announcing that she is, once again, pregnant. [DailyMail] ● Spencer Pratt is trying to dump his “midnight metallic-blue” monster truck on eBay, and not because he and Heidi need the money. No, just because it “gets too much attention driving a monster truck around L.A.,” and really, who would want all that attention? [TMZ] ● Taylor Momsen might like that attention! Here she is flashing a festival audience in England. She just can’t get enough. [ONTD]

‘South Park’ Doubly Censored After Veiled Threats

Yesterday I wrote about the controversy surrounding the April 14 episode of South Park, in which a cartoon depiction of the prophet Muhummad appeared. Despite the fact that he was not actually shown per se, but rather concealed by a bear costume, a New York-based Muslim website issued a stern warning that such an offense might well be answered — though not by them necessarily — with violence. In reaction, creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker elected to hide the character under a “CENSORED” graphic on the follow-up episode, and his name was bleeped as well. Apparently, this wasn’t enough of a compromise for Comedy Central.

According to the New York Times:

A spokesman for Comedy Central confirmed on Thursday that the network had added more bleeps to the episode than were in the version delivered by South Park Studios, and that it was not permitting the episode to be shown on the studio’s Web site. Comedy Central did not broadcast a repeat of the new “South Park” episode at midnight as it usually does, and instead showed a previous episode from this season. Comedy Central declined to comment on the Revolution Muslim blog post or say if it was taking any precautions because of it.

I could write a couple of graphs about how disappointing, craven, and absurd I find this, but The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart has, of course, beaten me to it. Last night, he devoted all of his show’s upfront segment to addressing the controversy, ending with a song-and-dance routine inviting all those who would threaten or kill for religious or political reasons to “go fuck themselves.”

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
South Park Death Threats
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party

‘South Park’ Draws Fire for Depiction of Muhammad

South Park has always embraced taboo subjects. Over the course of thirteen seasons, co-creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker have proven themselves controversy-friendly, willing to, say, depict Steve Irwin with a stingray barb in his chest or drop the n-word 43 times in a single episode. Now, only a month into the latest season, Stone and Parker are at it again, this time depicting the prophet Muhammad in a bear suit during last week’s episode. Already, a Muslim group has made mention of “violent retribution.”

David Bauder reports that the website RevolutionMuslim.com (now removed) hosted an article by one Abu Talhah Al-Amrikee alleging that the show’s creators “outright insulted” the religious leader.

“We have to warn Matt and Trey that what they are doing is stupid and they will probably wind up like Theo Van Gogh for airing this show. This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them.”

Accompanying the text was a grim image of Van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker who in 2004 was brutally murdered by a fanatic who objected to a film he’d made about Muslim women. CNN adds that the website has a history of promoting jihad, and praising Osama bin Laden. I’m guessing the South Park boys knew exactly what they were doing here and saw this coming in advance. If nothing else, they’ve got more guts than the dumb-shits at Yale University Press.