Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Popeye's and Other Chicken

Found a Popeye's within easy driving distance of work, which makes me happy. I like Popeye's chicken more than most other fast-food chicken places. Church's spicy comes close, but it's too dry, and their biscuits aren't as good either. KFC Original Recipe is probably still good, but every KFC I've visited in the past couple of years has given awful service, plus I hate the way they've rejiggered their menu, so I stopped going. Pelicana Chicken is awesome, but I'm nowhere near South Korea, so I haven't had it in a while; General Tso's chicken comes close, though, so I usually pile that stuff on when I hit a Chinese buffet. The only big problem I have with Popeye's is that they're expensive; $5.49 for a two-piece meal with drink. At least Church's offers some lower-priced options.

I read an interesting factoid on the Wikipedia site for Popeye's Chicken. Apparently, it did not take its name from Popeye the Sailor. I had assumed that Popeye's was part of that late 60's/early 70's fad of celebrities adding their names to fast food joints, like Minnie Pearl Fried Chicken or Roy Rogers Roast Beef.

We had a Minnie Pearl in Oklahoma City for a while, on Britton Road IIRC. The chicken was okay, nothing special (it was never intended to be special; the entire chain was founded on the concept of being Pepsi to KFC's Coke--a second-best siphoning off excess business). The chain mostly went under a few years later after an SEC investigation into accounting problems and allegations of stock price manipulation.

My stepfather used to bring home Roy Rogers sandwiches. They were awful, dry things that turned me off roast beef for years. I would go to Arby's with friends in college and just eat fries because I couldn't stand the thought of eating another cardboard sandwich. Most of the Roy Rogers in my area got turned into Hardee's in the 90's, and good riddance, I said.

So, with that kind of track record for franchised "celebrity name" restaurants, I figured Popeye's would be just another joint with nearly inedible food trying to make a fast buck with a famous name. Imagine my surprise when I finally broke down and visited the Popeye's near USC and discovered not only tasty chicken, but biscuits better than any I'd ever tasted before. I loved Popeye's in Los Angeles, couldn't find it in OKC or Tulsa when I moved back, had it again in the Army (Popeye's and Burger King were favorite destinations in Korea when we visited Camp Casey on "official" business). There are a few locations in Tulsa now, but none were within convenient driving distance, or so I thought.

Now I find out that, not only is there one close enough to visit frequently, but I was mistaken about the celebrity-name thing. Popeye's actually got its name from the character of Popeye Doyle in "The French Connection." So the famous name franchise curse is still operational.

Yeah, but what about Kenny Roger's Roasters? you ask. Their chicken was awesome.

I agree. Very tasty. But they made the mistake of charging sit-down restaurant prices for fast-food, and now there's only one location left, according to Wikipedia. The curse lives on.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Big Mac Anniversary

So yesterday, the news is full of stories about the 40th anniversary of the Big Mac. I remember when they first released the Big Mac. They had these commercials with this guy dressed like a lumberjack standing on a mountaintop, proclaiming the advent of a new burger. I'm sure he said something like, "big as the Great Outdoors" or something like that.

What was not noted in any of the stories I saw, however, nor on the Wikipedia site, is that the Big Mac was almost certainly a copy of the Big Boy Burger, signature burger of Big Boy restaurants nationwide. Compare the Big Mac above with the Big Boy burger here. They're almost identical. Same two patties with cheese, same Thousand Island dressing code-named "special sauce," same sesame seed bun with a special bunlet in the middle. The only things missing from the description on the Big Boy menu are the pickles and those nasty reconstituted onion shavings McDonalds puts on their old-school burgers.

Even the name, Big Mac, is a pretty obvious shout-out to its origin as the Big Boy. So if you're having a Big Mac to celebrate the anniversary, take a moment to give thanks to Big Boy for providing the inspiration.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Comedy Is Hard

I'm still listening to classic old radio shows, although not as single-mindedly as before. And one surprising discovery I've made (which shouldn't be all that surprising) is how much material got reused.

I knew that mystery writers like Carlton E. Morse would reuse plots. But listening to ten episodes of the Bickersons back-to-back, you realize every one is written to roughly the same formula and rhythm. You even hear the same jokes being reused. Stuff like (as John complains how he denies himself luxuries to save money), "I don't even drink my bourbon anymore. I just chew the cork and hit myself over the head with the bottle!" Two shows even reused the same 45-second exchange word-for-word, which doesn't sound like a lot until you realize the skits were only 15 minutes long.

I don't know why this strikes me so differently than, say, a stand-up comedian using the same three-minutes of material over and over or the dudes on Saturday Night Live reusing the same characters and formulas week after week. There's something about having fictional characters speak the exact same dialogue that hits a button with me.

But I don't know why it should. Good comedy is hard, and if you gets a good line that gets a big laugh, why not fall back on it occasionally. Listening to that reused exchange on "The Bickersons" (and I know for a fact that this was at least the second time it was used, not the first), I noticed that it got one of the biggest, most extended laughs of the entire show (of course, this was one of the last episodes, and it seemed like half the lines in the script were recycled from other shows).

I'm not sure what all this means to me right now. I'm in Digger doldrums, fighting with the plot of the new book and trying to figure out a way to fix the last short story I wrote. Neither one works well on a story level. What magic did I have two years ago that I don't have now?

Monday, August 13, 2007

Fantastic Planet

I don't remember what got me all nostalgic about this movie, but I found out the entire thing is on YouTube, in pieces. So I watched it again. It's the French version, without subtitles--maybe that's how they get around copyright laws--but the story is simple enough that I was still able to follow it pretty well, especially since I read a couple of on-line synopses first.

Anyway, "Fantastic Planet" was a French/Czech coproduction originally titled "La Planete Sauvage," directed by Rene Laloux. It had its first release in America in December 1973, so I would have been 11 when I first saw it. What an eye-opener this was for an eleven-year-old!

Based on a French sci-fi novel titled "Oms En Serie," it tells the story of Terr, a young human (or "Om") who grows up as the plaything of Tiva on the planet Ygam. The humans' planet has been taken over by these giant blue humanoid aliens called Draags, and what few humans survive have been brought back to their home planet as pets and playthings. However, just like tribbles, Oms reproduce at a rate that alarms the Draags and many have escaped into the wild, so the Draags are constantly trying to cull the human population. The giant blue Tiva takes Terr as a pet after his mother is killed by a group of Draag kids.

Years later, Terr escapes from Tiva's house with a Draag teaching machine and joins a group of wild Oms in a park. They use the machine to learn Draag language and science. Armed with that knowledge, they begin a rebellion against their alien masters.

This sounds larger in scope than it really is. There's very little plot on display here, very little in the way of cause and effect. So much of the film consists of action in the background, depicting Terr and fellow Oms walking past landscapes of incredible strangeness, like a landscape of twisting orgainc pipes that look like intestines, which kink and curl and spasm when it rains. The characters are dull and undistinguished; the planet is the star.

Watching it now, it is obviously a product of its times. It has that early 70's psychedelia to it, a proto-synthesizer soundtrack, a ponderous and self-important obscurity in the storytelling. And it's full of sex, or at least it looked that way to an eleven-year-old kids who was just beginning to notice that girls were different in good ways. All of the female Draags have prominent bare breasts, although the Draags are distinctly non-sexual. The savage Oms also run around in clothes that leave at least one breast bared. There is a scene in which Terr watches the Oms conduct a mating ritual, which echoes a later scene in which the humans witness a Draag mating ritual (the climax of the film). The film begins with Terr's bare-breasted mother and ends with the Oms disrupting a Draag orgy, and everything in between is filled with the soft moans of a woman's voice on the soundtrack.

"Fantastic Planet" opened my eyes to the fact that animation was not just about funny animals and superheroes. It showed me a world of new possibilities, and though "Fantastic Planet" doesn't realize those possibilities terribly well, it is memorably weird and sometimes disturbing.

Friday, August 03, 2007


Sorry it took so long to finish this, but life intruded.

So in the mid-90's, Michael Jackson had hit a bad patch. In the 80's, everything Jackson touched seemed to turn to gold. But "Bad" had not sold as well as "Thriller," and "Dangerous" had sold less well than "Bad." By 1996, Jackson's oddity, always a factor in press stories about him, had now come to the forefront; the controversial "Black or White" video, the quickie marriage and quick divorce with Lisa Marie Presley, the child molestation charges, the morphing appearance, all overwhelmed coverage of his music.

Creatively, he had become irrelevant. He had not released an original album since 1991, and had instead released two very expensive compilations of older material mixed with a few new songs. Jackson continued to push his music with ever more elaborate music videos, hoping to reignite the spark to his career that had caught with the "Billie Jean" and "Beat It" videos from "Thriller." As the videos got longer and stranger, though, Jackson's efforts felt more and more desperate.

And in 1996, along came "Michael's Jackson's Ghosts." Thirty-eight minutes long, featuring special-effects make-up by Stan Winston (who also directed). "Ghosts" tells the story of the Maestro, a reclusive man who lives in a spooky house just outside a small town. The film opens in black-and-white, with a group of townspeople marching up to the house carrying torches. Apparently, some young boys have been spreading stories about the cool stuff the Maestro shows them when they come to visit, and the townspeople, especially the fat, white mayor, want the Maestro gone and their children left alone.

The gates outside open mysteriously, as do the doors of the house. The Mayor leads everyone inside, and the film shifts to color once they get inside the main ballroom of the house. The Maestro (Jackson) appears and confronts the Mayor. The Mayor calls him a freak and tells him the town doesn't want his kind of folk around anymore. "Are you going to leave," the Mayor asks, "or am I going to have to hurt you?"

The Maestro then declares that, since the mayor is trying to scare him, he will now scare them back. And he begins to sing and dance, while summoning ghosts from the walls all around him. After about twenty minutes of this, he finally scares the mayor away and convinces the rest of the townspeople to accept him.

As a movie, it's not very good. The story, credited to Jackson and Stephen King, is a flimsy excuse for the set-piece dance, and the dialogue is incoherent. And it's downright uncomfortable to watch, because you can tell it's clearly meant to be a commentary on Jackson's highly-publicized personal troubles and get us to sympathize with him. And maybe that worked to some extent in 1996, but in 2007, after more child-molestation allegations had surfaced, it is hard not to wince when we see one kid says, "Show them the stuff you showed us," followed by another kid saying, "That's supposed to be a secret."

And the discomfort continues once the music starts. Once again, Jackson spends long stretches of time shouting at the top of his lungs for no apparent reason. It would be bad enough for him to do it once, but he does it over and over again for long stretches of the film. And the scene where he removes his flesh and dances as a bare skeleton would be really cool, except that it is edited to look as if Jackson just removed his clothes initially, with cutaways to the townspeople, including the kids, who react... strangely (actually, the film is full of reaction shots that form no coherent arc-the townspeople alternate between scared and amused for no apparent reason).

The most disturbing, and perhaps revealing, moment of all is when the Maestro possesses the Mayor and forces him to dance. The Mayor manages to make himself stop, and then a hand holding a mirror bursts out of his abdomen. The Mayor's face changes into a demonic version of itself, and he begins screaming into the mirror in the Maestro's voice, "Look at yourself. Who's the freak now? WHO'S THE FREAK NOW?"

What's disturbing about this is that the Mayor is played by Jackson in an elaborate prosthetic make-up. So here we're seeing Michael Jackson, who has dogged for years by rumors that he has been trying to make himself white, made up as a white man possessed by a (sort-of) black man, screaming hatred at himself in a mirror. Urgh.

And of course, this video is further proof that Jackson's strategy of hiring supposedly the best (or most popular) talents in the world to support him just never paid off the way it was supposed to. It seemed like such a good idea in the 80's, when we all thought there would be some kind of crossover between music video and feature films. But that first wave of video directors like Steve Barron, Bob Giraldi and Russell Mulcahy never did make any features worth a damn.

And would anybody seriously argue that John Landis ("Thriller," "Black or White"), Martin Scorcese ("Bad"), "Francis Ford Coppolla ("Captain EO"), John Singleton ("Remember the Time"), Herb Ritts ("In the Closet") or Spike Lee ("They Don't Care About Us") did themselves proud with these things? "Thriller" was the most popular, but it's clumsy and let's face it, Landis was always a hack. David Fincher's video for Michael ("Who Is It?") works really well, but Fincher is one of those few in the second wave of video directors who has been able to slip successfully between the long and short forms.

Here, Jackson has the support of Academy Award-winning make-up/effects man Stan Winston, bestselling author Stephen King and Academy Award-winning effects house Digital Domain and it still turns out awful. The effects are great, but the film overall is boring. It's worth watching as a curiosity, but not as a film.

Thursday, August 02, 2007


I was going to post some pics from Conestoga, but I take really boring pictures, so never mind.

So, typical night of websurfing last night. My daughter asks if I want to see her do a new kind of disco dancing, then does dome silly rolling around on the floor. I say it looks more like break-dancing than disco; she asks what break dancing is.

So I hunt around on YouTube, find some breakdancing clips to give her an idea of the flavor. She thinks it's pretty cool. The Wife comes up in the middle and asks if we've seen the Philippine prison guys dancing to "Thriller."

So I look that up. We watch it, along with Mom-In-Law, who is not familiar with the original video in question. So I look up the original, just to compare the dancing, and watch that, then read about it on Wikipedia.

Interesting bit on Wikipedia: To qualify for an Academy Award, "Thriller" was debuted at a special theatrical screening, along with the 1940 animated motion picture Fantasia. It was met enthusiastically by the audience with a standing ovation, and most patrons left without staying for the main feature.[citation needed]

I doubt if this will count as the necessary citation for Wikipedia's sake, but I was there that first night. It actually ran for a week or two. The theater was in Westwood, and I went there along with my college roommate and several of his friends. They were all classical music majors, so we were actually there to see "Fantasia," which had been reissued with a new digital soundtrack conducted by Irwin Kostal. We stood in line outside the theater for a long time, and I remember being somewhat surprised that so many people were there to see an old Disney film.

We went into the theater, and it filled up quickly until it was literally standing room only. The lights went down and "Thriller" came on, to shouts and applause. Fifteen minutes later, it was over, and people started leaving. I was amazed. Every person in that theater, as far as I knew, had paid full price (five or six bucks, I can't remember now) to see a two-hour feature, and they were leaving already. By the time "Fantasia" started, there were maybe twenty of us left in the theater. About half of those apparently only stayed because they had paid full price and figured they'd get their money's worth; they left in the first half-hour.

By the time "Fantasia" ended, there were less than ten people in the theater, and most of them were in our group.

After watching the original "Thriller" last night, I watched part of a version made with animated Legos: funny but frustrating, because it was out-of-focus the entire time. By that time, I was thinking about a bit of another video Jackson had done, of which I had seen only a tiny clip on TV years ago; it featured Jackson in a haunted house, in monster make-up. I looked it up and found it.

"Michael Jackson's Ghosts."

Fascinating and strange. More about that tomorrow.