T: Another year, another Betty White grave-dancing party.
J: I don’t think she really does that.
T: No, of course not. She just walks by the cemetery, blowing the smoke off her pistol.
J: She may outlive us all; she turns 98 in January.
T: She’s immoral, man.
J: I’m sure she knows her way around a French tickler, but I think you mean immortal.
T: Oh, crap. Yes, I’m referring to her longevity. Not her love of cheap hotels and dwarf tossing.
J: And Kirk Douglas can’t get a “huzza, whazzup?” to save his life. Which, incidentally, is still going; 103 and counting.
T: Holy crap … he was born in 1916. There are geological formations that aren’t as old as he is. He was born before radio, for gawd’s sake. He was born before Dr. Ruth, who has been old since I was a kid.
J: Dr. Ruth is still alive?
T: As of right now, yes. But I don’t have a direct feed to her Kevorkian personal physician.
J: How old is she?
T: She’s 91.
J: I guess all that penis-grabbing is healthy exercise.
T: Not for the husband. He died in 1997.
J: Cause of death?
T: Ain’t touching it.
J: That was the cause of death?
T: Can we move on? There’s got to be something better to do than thinking about a penis-grabbing old woman who looks like a Pomeranian Oompa Loompa.
J: You prefer to speak ill of the dead?
T: In this case, yes.
J: We’ve reached the end of 2019; I think it’s time for the third installment of our “Dirt Naps of the Too Famous to Sue Us for Libel” series. Whaddya think?
T: Absolutely, let’s do it. Another year, another long list of dearly departed cultural deities. You can throw out the first slack-a-bituary.
T: Give it time, it’ll catch on.
J: Gawd, I hope not.
T: So who’s your opener?
J: At the top of my list, but only because he was 7 feet 3, is Peter Mayhew.
T: Was he a basketball player?
J: No, you moron. He was Chewbacca in all the Star Wars movies.
T: AAAAAAAUUUUUURRRRRRRGGGGGHHHHHH!!! I forgot!
J: That’s awful. Mayhew was probably more famous for doing less than anybody not named Kardashian. I mean, all he ever did was be tall and furry, arch his back and growl a lot. Again, kinda like a Kardashian.
T: I don’t remember any Kardashians being tall. Wide, yes. Tall, no.
J: Well, if they’re lying on their stomachs, they’re pretty tall.
T: If you were in the snack aisle and you came across something called a Chewy Kardashian, would you (1) buy it and eat it, (2) call security or (3) run?
J: I’d (4) Get someone else to eat it and watch them carefully for ill effects.
T: I imagine it would come in a tiny box, spilling out the sides, the top and the bottom. Especially the bottom.
J: They’re all about the bottom.
Who’s at the top of your 2019 death list?
T: What are you saying? You don’t want to spend the next 10,000 words making up Kardashian jokes?
T: Fair enough. My first grudging addition to the ranks of the departed is Tim Conway.
Tim was the ultimate scene-breaker, a guy who seemed to dedicate his entire career to making sure everyone around him was reduced to gooey spasms of laughter.
Not grudging as in I actually killed him. I want to be clear about that.
J: He was the ultimate second banana; he made everyone around him funnier, just by existing. Even if he didn’t do anything, you knew he was going to do something, so you watched for it.
And he never disappointed.
T: I think Tim’s greatest moment, in a career of great moments, was his Elephant joke during a Mama’s Family sketch.
J: The outtake sketch from that show might have been the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.
T: Tim did a star turn in McHale’s Navy that was well-received, but I wasn’t as big a fan of that performance. Tim was always at his best without a script chaining him to reality.
J: I’m not sure they even used scripts for him on the Carol Burnett Show. They just gave him a premise and let him run with it. That was why Harvey Kormann had such a legendarily hard time keeping a straight face; he never got what he thought was coming. I doubt Conway knew what was coming, either, most of the time.
T: I’m pretty sure Conway’s script just said, “go out there and fuck Harvey up.”
J: And he did. Over and over and over and …
T: Speaking of fucking people up, who’s your next victim?
I should stop implying that we are actually killing these people.
J: My next dirt-napper is one I’ve actually seen live; Eddie Money. I liked him because he never seemed to take himself too seriously.
J: I saw him in ’99 or ’00; it was at some kind of outdoor event, a fair or something. At one point people started drifting away to go do something else, and Money yelled, “Hey! This ain’t the fuckin’ MONKEES, here! This is Eddie Money!”
Whereupon, the band struck up “Last Train to Clarksville.”
T: I saw him about the same time – early 1999, on Fremont St. in Vegas – and he was terrific. Where were we?
J: We were about to get your second choice.
T: Got it. I’m going to go with Danny Aiello. He had a long career – six decades, something like that – but for me he was all about two movies, made fairly close together: Hudson Hawk, and Two Days in the Valley.
J: He had a distinguished career; “Michael Corleone says hello” is an iconic line. He started late; he didn’t get his first movie role till he was 40.
T: Hudson Hawk was roundly panned by critics, movie goers and even Bruce Willis, the guy who wrote it. But I thought it was a fun movie, and Danny was terrific as Willis’ sidekick. The two of them blowing up a castle with grenade launchers, all the while singing “Side by Side” like a couple of assholes on Karaoke night, was almost as fun as Willis shooting that stupid dog in the face with a tennis ball.
J: Hudson Hawk routinely appears on lists of the ten worst movies of all time. I don’t know if it’s that bad; it does have some classic comic scenes. The ambulance bit is as good as anything in Airplane!
T: I loved it. I think the critics always need something to hate, so they choose a movie that was interesting enough to watch but had some perceived fatal flaw. Hudson Hawk’s ‘flaw’ was that it wasn’t serious enough for all the Die Hard fans.
But that’s what made it so fun, to me. It was Bruce Willis from Moonlighting, making fun of Bruce Willis from Die Hard.
J: Aiello had a perfect Italian Mob associate face and manner, and he could have made a nice living playing nothing but stereotypical characters. To his credit, he rose above his natural look and showed a wide range of acting chops.
T: Who’s next?
J: Peter Tork. Speaking of the Monkees, he became the second of them to go to the great banana patch in the sky.
T: I don’t think they were actually monkeys.
J: Leave me alone. Despite the criticism leveled at the Monkees for not playing their own instruments, Tork actually did play keyboards, and quite well; that’s him playing the intro on “Daydream Believer.”
T: I think they were all musicians of a sort; the issue was muddled by Hollywood hyperbole. Because they weren’t famous musicians – just musicians – when the show hit big, the media mostly scorned them for not graduating from Julliard and spending 20 years on the road.
J: Weirdly, that lack of regard for the Monkees led to some famous bands that actually weren’t musicians.
T: Yeah, like the f*&#ing Partridge Family. David Cassidy could play, but the rest were just faking it. And don’t get me started about the (deleted) Brady Bunch.
J: And the Kardashians.
T: Who have the added advantage of being second-generation actual monkeys.
J: That’s just a rumor.
T: I know. I started it.
J: David Bowie’s real name was David Jones. He once wrote a fan “I don’t have to tell you why I changed it. No one’s going to make a monkey out of me.”
T: My next choice is Katherine Helmond. Like Danny Aiello, she hit her stride after turning 40, becoming a post-menopausal sex symbol as the star of “Soap” and the wisecracking cougar in “Who’s the Boss?”
J: Katherine Helmond…. it seems like she got a call in the slack last year, too, right? The Soap creator passed last year, too.
T: Yep. Take a mix of 30- and 40-something actors, add 40 years, and voila! Funerals everywhere.
J: Helmond was a rare bird, she got sexy in her 40s and 50s, at a time when you were disposable in Hollywood after your 30th birthday.
T: Who’s your next pick?
J: Daryl Dragon. The Captain of the Captain and Tennille. They were the hottest thing going for a while there when I was growing up.
T: Oh, for sure. I remember when they did “Love Will Keep Us Together” on the Merv Griffin show … they seemed really old to me, like grandparents old, but they were actually in their early 30s. Perceptions, I guess. All I know was that I loved the song, and apparently so did everyone else. It was the number one song of 1975.
J: They ended up getting divorced for health-insurance reasons a few years ago, after the Captain came down with Parkinson’s disease. They didn’t want everything they’d earned over the years to get eaten up by his care, so they put all their assets in her name and put him in a care facility. She was with him when he died. So, I guess love really did keep them together.
T: We know him as the Captain, of course. But he was also a member of the Beach Boys.
J: They were the ones that gave him the Captain nickname, for Captain Keyboard.
T: Speaking of keyboard idols, my next choice is Basin Street icon Malcolm John Rebennack Jr., known to the masses as Dr. John.
J: Dr. John was a Cajun icon all right. He was one of those real flamboyant guys, like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and a terrific musician.
T: A session player back to the 1950’s, Dr. John put out 30 albums and played with … well, with everybody. His Delta-tinged jazzy blues style had more Cajun flavor than a bucket of dirty rice.
The good Doctor was inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.
J: A well-deserved honor. He did more to bring Delta music out of the bayou than, well, than anybody.
T: He was genuinely into voodoo, adding rituals to his shows and selling gris-gris next to his albums and t-shirts. A true Louisiana legend.
Who’s your next pick?
J: Jan-Michael Vincent. One of the great TV action heroes of the ’70s and ’80s. Airwolf was a great show. Lots of explosions and car chases, which appealed to a teenaged me. If they made a show just called Explosions and Car Chases, it’d pull big ratings among the teenage male demographic.
T: Family Guy did a sendup on him recently … I don’t remember him all that well. To me, I always sort of confused him with Val Kilmer. I think it was the feminine first name, plus they looked a little bit alike.
J: He was all over the place as a guest star; he was on Gunsmoke a lot, Bonanza, Dragnet… but he really didn’t hit his stride till Airwolf.
T: It’s funny how we are the same age, but we remember different people from our youth. While you were watching Airwolf, I was probably watching Emergency.
J: I remember that show, but only because they used the fire station that my uncle Jerry worked at for their location shots.
T: My next choice is Arte Johnson. He lived so long that the world forgot about him, but he was a big part of what made Laugh-In funny.
J: He didn’t do much on Laugh-In except say “verrrrry interesting … but schtupid” and hit on Ruth Buzzi, but those were some of the best bits on the show.
T: “Learn a German accent, or stay out of the act!”
J: As an aside, it’s remarkable how many of the pop-culture references that got started on Laugh-In are still around. “Sock it to me,” “Veerrry interesting”, “We’re the phone company: we don’t care; we don’t have to”, and on and on. That show had a huge influence on Americana.
T: The tricycle falling over, by itself, would make Arte an icon. And he did the German helmet bit, the old man hitting on Ruth Buzzi as you said, and (or course) his tag line — usually while wearing the German helmet but not always.
J: Elvis wanted to do that bit at the end with the tricycle… he wanted to do it in full costume, fall over and have the camera zoom in to show that it was really him. The Colonel wouldn’t let him do it, though.
My next choice is Rene Auberjonois, who played Clayton on Benson. I’ve always felt like I knew the Benson cast, because I actually did know one of them (James Noble, who played Governor Gatling) and he’d tell me stories about being on the set with them. Auberjonois was probably better known as Odo on “Deep Space Nine”, but to me he’s Clayton, now and forever.
T: Me too; one of the most difficult and thankless roles on sitcoms is the heel. Aujus … Aber … Eber … Rene was one of the more iconic heels of his time.
J: Who’s your next choice?
T: For my next choice, I’m taking my young ass back to Goat Hills. Dan Jenkins wrote for Playboy and Sports Illustrated for decades – well into his 80s – but to me he will always be the guy who brought Fort Worth drunk society to the masses with his books, the most famous of which was Semi-Tough.
J: He was the best sportswriter of our generation, and his best work stands up with the all-timers. Semi-Tough is one of the best sports books ever written, comedy or not.
T: He wrote a mix of autobiographical and fan fictionalized prose, mixing stories from Fort Worth with his redneck heroes mixing with New York society, playing them off each other in high and low comedy like an erudite fly on both walls. Which, of course, he was.
He brought us the Catcher’s Mitt (a chicken-fried steak big enough to fill a full dinner plate, covered in hash browns, pinto beans, red-eye gravy and eggs), Goat Hills (the long, flat, windy golf course in east Texas where MaGoo blowed the Open and Lee Trevino learnt to hit it low) and, of course, Billy Clyde Puckett, Shake Tiller and Barbara Jane Bookman.
Puckett was the first-person hero, a conventional straight man but no sissy. Tiller was the outrageous maverick who fulfilled all our rebellious fantasies, and Barbara Jane was the perfect Fort Worth hottie next door. Literally next door; they all grew up together.
J: My next dirt-napper is Ginger Baker. He was the drummer for Cream and played behind Eric Clapton for years. His drumming influenced a whole generation of musicians who came after him.
T: Cream was as famous as any band in their time, and they were considered more artistic, I think, than most of their contemporaries.
J: They did have a more traditional rock sound than some other groups, but they never got into the big prog-rock sound of groups like Yes or the Moody Blues.
T: They were before my time, but I think of them as one of the key bands that brought a more blues-based sound to the masses, paving the way for Led Zeppelin, CCR and the rest of the 1970s guitar-based, lick-based bands. A generation of guitar players learned Clapton’s licks, and a generation of drummers copied Baker’s patterns.
J: Who’s your next passenger on the Brass-Handle Railroad?
T: My next tribute act is Stewart Robert Einstein.
T: I don’t know if he’s related to Albert Einstein the physicist, but his brother is the comedian/writer/producer/director/all-around funny guy Albert Einstein, known to the masses as Albert Brooks.
Stewart, or Bob as he was known publicly, was most famous for three characters. The most recent character was Marty Funkhauser on Curb Your Enthusiasm; he also played Larry Middleman on Arrested Development.
But to me, and to most people our age, he was, is, and always will be Super Dave Osborne.
J: Super Dave was one of the most iconic characters ever created. He was funny as hell in those jeans commercials… “They’re still not wrinkled!” after being hit by a truck or smashed into a bridge abutment.
T: He was like a real-life Mr. Bill with a death wish. To Super Dave, the whole world was Sluggo.
In his natural persona, Einstein loved to tell jokes. Most of them were too disgusting for public consumption, but we aren’t exactly public, so here’s a medley from YouTube.
J: I’m gonna go with one of the latecomers in this sweepstakes (well, lategoers I suppose), Don Imus. He paved the way for guys like Howard Stern and Opie and Anthony. He was the first of the shock jocks, and he kept on shocking people his entire career.
T: I personally despise the shock jock culture, but that’s just me. Imus was so famous that even I knew who he was.
J: I’m not really a fan of it either, but Imus more or less invented the genre. For good or for bad, he was a pioneer. He also was a tremendous philanthropist; he donated tens of millions of dollars to various charities. It was like there were two of him, the good one and the bad one. I think “Bad Imus” was a persona, something he used to get attention and ratings and stir up controversy. It wasn’t necessarily who he really was, although there’s probably at least some overlap.
T: Who did we miss?
J: There were some other pretty big names we lost this year, Valerie Harper, Doris Day, Rip Taylor, Gloria Vanderbilt…
T: How about big names to you personally? I don’t mean actual friends, but famous people who had a significant effect on your life?
J: I was a big fan of Jim Fowler when I was growing up; he did all the work on Wild Kingdom while Marlin Perkins sat in the Land Rover and drank martinis out of a Thermos. I always thought that he had just about the most exciting job in the world, except for the nearly getting eaten by tigers part.
T: I remember that show well, mostly for the Mutual of Omaha commercials and the jeep driving everywhere with Perkins perched in the back like Washington crossing the Delaware, but when they stopped and got out, l it was always Fowler getting his hands dirty.
J: Caroll Spinney was the puppeteer for Big Bird. I was exposed to a lot of Sesame Street when I was little, and Big Bird was a big (no pun intended) part of that.
T: Was Big Bird a puppet? I always thought there was a person inside a costume, like a mascot.
J: Yeah, there was a person inside, but he wasn’t eight feet tall… they used puppetry to work the eyes and mouth and neck.
T: Who wins in the octagon? Big Bird or Chewbacca?
J: Chewy would have Big Bird on his back on a plate surrounded by potatoes in no time.
T: “Laugh it up, fuzzball.”
“Do you smell chicken?”
“Yeah … and barbequed grouch”
J: You know who we forgot who had a ginormous freakin’ influence on us? Jim effin’ Bouton of the major effin’ leagues!
T: Oh yeah, no kidding … Ball Four was just a book to the masses, but for us it was a 400-page list of sayings, tag lines and weird people who we wish we knew.
J: Ball Four was the first sports book I ever read. My dad told me I couldn’t read it because it had bad words and sex talk in it, so naturally I lost no time in checking it out at the local library. And yes, it was just chock-full of one-liners and taglines and a memorable cast of characters.
T: “All right, men. Act horny.”
“Why do I need a penicillin shot for his kidney infection?”
“I gotta take a shit, if that helps.”
J: ‘Hiya blondie, how’s your old tomato?”
“Just as I got called out on strikes, my greenie kicked in.”
J: “Give him some low smoke and we’ll go in and pound some Budweiser.”
J: “He said he was playing golf.”
T: “At three o’clock in the morning?”
J: “Who knows? Maybe he was.”
T: “You sure overestimated my curiosity.”
J: “The fine was more than I expectorated.”
T: “This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen in all my years in baseball.”
J: “Tell your statistics to shut up.”
T: We could go on forever.
J: Bouton was the first guy to really write a baseball expose. Before then it was all-American boys with good teeth and nice wives who didn’t smoke, drink, curse or have sex with groupies. Bouton ripped away the veil, and in doing so alienated a large part of the baseball establishment.
T: Bouton himself was not particularly revolutionary. He was a jock and probably an establishment republican most of his youth. He got caught up in the revolution, almost by accident, in the process of writing the book. But he was writing the book to make money. He was always an entrepreneur at heart.
J: That’s true; he was a revolutionary by accident, but never really a rebel. Big League Chew, his broadcasting career … he was at heart a conservative, at least financially.
T: Like a lot of us, I think.
J: You and me, for sure.
T: After Ball Four, Bouton made a comeback reminiscent of Rich Hill’s recent comeback, but in his case he decided not to continue once he demonstrated to himself that he could do it.
J: Hill signed a contract for $48 million. I’m sure Bouton would have kept going for that.
T: No doubt. As you said, he invented and marketed Big League Chew, and he was heavily involved in 19th century baseball reenactments later on.
Big-League Chew was originally meant to produce spit that looked like tobacco spit, but I think they got rid of that aspect. It’s still around; maybe we could try it. I’ve never actually tried any.
J: I tried it once; it’s basically shredded bubble gum. It’s not bad, if bubble gum is your thing.
I think a lot of the objection to Bouton writing the book was that he was a nobody; if it had come from one of the big stars of the day, no one would have said a thing. No one ever said that what he wrote wasn’t true; it was that he wasn’t a good enough player to tell the actual truth.
T: The Nixonian establishment went nuts … Bowie Kuhn, a tool of all tools if there ever was a tool, went to his own grave still bitter about how Bouton ruined baseball and milkshakes and white privilege.
J: After Bouton, baseball books went from assembly-line pap to assembly-line exposes. He forever altered sports books.
T: That may have been his most lasting impact. Not just in baseball, either. Writing in general opened up substantially after Ball Four; it may have anyway, as the Hunter Thompson/Dan Jenkins generation of writers took over, but I think Bouton helped make that transition easier, and it’s arguable that he made it possible. He brought counterculture to suburban baseball fans.
J: Like us?
T: Like us.
J: He was a pioneer, like Imus but more likable.
T: Was Bouton likeable?
J: More so than Imus, I’d venture. Idi Amin was more likable than Imus.
T: Bouton was persona non grata in baseball for years – Elston Howard died still despising him – but I think the general public sees him in a positive light. Imus was generally despised by people outside his circle, but quite popular within his circle.
So it could be said that they are opposites, maybe? Bouton told the truth, was ostracized by his peers but admired by the masses. Imus spouted off about whatever bullshit that came to his head, was worshipped by his followers but largely dismissed and despised by those who were not part of his cadre of hate-spewing trolls.
J: Both of them were ostracized for the things they said, but as you say for different reasons. Bouton’s sin was in telling the previously hidden truth. Imus’s sin was in being a racist, misogynist asshole. That’s where the difference lies to me.
T: The times were different, of course. Bouton was floutin’ the rules of secrecy, revealing truths that weren’t supposed to be revealed. People resented him – properly, I think – for basically spying on his teammates.
But in social media terms, Bouton was like the guy who shared funny memes around Facebook. Imus was a SPAM ad.
J: We need a Kardashian comparison.
T: I got nothin’. You?
J: I dunno … something something Kim Kardashian’s butt.
T: Close enough.