Pop Rocking Culture Goes to Comikaze 2015!

Blue Striker, Dad and I went to Stan Lee’s Comikaze 2015 at the Los Angeles Convention Center on November 1, 2015. For starters, this may be a landmark year for the five year old convention, because Stan Lee (who bought out the convention a couple of years ago) made an unofficial announcement on Friday that this may be the last Comikaze he attends. It would be strange not to see Stan Lee at Comikaze. However, he is in his nineties, and it is amazing that he maintains such a high profile.

We last attended Comikaze in 2012, and upon entering the Convention Center, it was obvious how much Comikaze has grown. For one, we had a hard time getting through the crowds in the vendor area. While this is generally a sign of success, it made things a bit overwhelming. Blue Striker also noted that it also made it difficult to determine who had stuff to give away. A suggestion to those responsible for the day-to-day logistics of the convention: Make sure attendees (including members of the press, like me) have easy access to the programs.

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There was a lot of neat cosplay at Comikaze. I noticed that there was a relatively small number of people dressed as “traditional” superheroes. That said, there continues to be a plethora of Harley Quinns, Jokers, Deadpools and Spiderhumans. There were also plenty of anime and video game characters (who Blue Striker had to point out to me), as well as TV and movie characters. For even a minor Doctor Who fan like me, it was neat to see people dressed up as Doctors Tom Baker, David Tennant and Matt Smith. There were more fezes there than at a Shriners convention!

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As Pop Rocking Culture is also about the pop culture experience for kids, I did notice a few kids who seemed overwhelmed by all of the action. I am sure many of them were tired, hungry and even bored as well. It would be great that on Sunday, which is supposedly the traditional “kids’ day” at cons, there were a few more things geared towards the young set. On the plus side, there was a pretty neat panel called “Pop Culture Parenting with the Geeklings and Parental Units”. I got the chance to find out like-minded moms and dads, who had a few great ideas for bringing up the next generation of pop culture mavens. There is actually a group called Geeklings and Parental Units, who host meetups in the Los Angeles area.

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There were plenty of Baby Boomer and Gen X icons such as Nichelle Nichols and Walter Koenig of Star Trek: The Original Series fame, as well as Erik Estrada and Larry Wilcox from CHiPs. It was also neat to see kid star Kel Mitchell, the one half of the Kenan and Kel team from Nickelodeon whom we don’t see every week on Saturday Night Live. I pointed out to Blue Striker that this guy is the same one who played the goofy kid with the braids in Good Burger. (Note: I mentioned Mystery Men to Blue first, but then I realized that he’s never seen it. Another thing to add to his pop culture “to do” list.)

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All in all, we had a good time at Comikaze 2015. We hope that wpress credentials in 2016. Blue Striker says that he will definitely dress in costume the next time around. As for me, I might as well.

Favorite Dads in Pop Culture

Dumbledore is one of our favorite "dads"!

Dumbledore is one of our favorite “dads”!

Since Father’s Day is coming up, Blue Striker and I were discussing our favorite dads in pop culture. Now, mind you, these aren’t necessarily good dads, but here they are (in no particular order):

Marlin in Finding Nemo: As Blue Striker says, how can anyone who crosses the entire ocean to find his son not be a good dad? Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) is a great dad, Finding Nemo is a great film and one of Pixar’s best.

Sheriff Andy Taylor in The Andy Griffith Show: Purveyor of homespun homilies? Check. Good guy who isn’t uptight? Check. Able to successfully police the crazy inhabitants of his town, starting with his wacky deputy, Barney Fife? Check. Great sense of humor? Check. Opie Taylor’s dad manages to do all this while raising his son as a single dad (with the help of Aunt Bea, of course).

Mung Daal in Chowder: Mung (voiced by Dwight Schultz, better known as “Mad Dog Murdock” of The A-Team) is more of a father figure than a father (Chowder’s his apprentice). Although at times Mung is impatient with his much less than perfect apprentice, he possesses the daffiness of a Cartoon Network character (which he is) as well as the best cartoon mustache since Snidely Whiplash.

Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series (books and movies): Harry lucked out when he fell under the tutelage of the wise and powerful Headmaster of Hogwarts (played by Richard Harris and Michael Gambon in the movies), especially when you consider the alternative.

Fred G. Sanford in Sanford and Son: The “G” stands for “great googly moogly, how can you leave him out?” Redd Foxx (born John Elroy Sanford, whose brother was Fred Sanford) was hilarious as the cranky junkman with a heart of gold, particularly when it came to his son Lamont, who could be unappreciative and self-centered at times.

Jonathan “Pa” Kent in practically every iteration of Superman: The guiding force behind the Man of Steel. The fact that actors known for playing “good guys”, such as  Glenn Ford, John Schneider and Kevin Costner, have portrayed Pa Kent tells us much about his character.

Opossum Carols, or Walt Kelly’s Xmas Postludicrosity

More Christmas reflections. I played the video for Bill and Blue Striker…their reaction? “What the heck is this?!” If you don’t get it, you’re too young!

Humor in America

As the first snows of December drift across my South St Louis windows, and the last shards of Thanksgiving turkey find their way into the requisite casseroles, cold cuts, and cauldrons of stock, I find myself harkening back to early Advent Sundays of yore.

My childhood, like so many others, was loaded with the humor of the holidays, but one of my family’s favorite traditions always tended in a more marsupial direction. So if you’ie got some time between mixing tubs of “Tom and Jerry” and trimming the tree, I’d like to share one of many meaningful excursions through the absurd quadrants of kiddie Christmas culture.

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As I boy growing up in Detroit in the 1970s, I loved watching my mother collapse the last of her gargantuan Thanksgiving feast into a few impossibly crammed Tupperware containers and stuff the serving platters, gravy boats, and silver-plate cutlery away for their long…

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An Appreciation: Mike Nichols (1931-2014)

I know that this is a bit of a departure from the usual topics here at Pop Rocking Culture, as well as a bit late, but I wanted to write about the late director Mike Nichols.  Nichols passed away earlier this month at the age of 83.  Among other things, Nichols attended the University of Chicago, although he dropped out to pursue an acting career.  (As an aside, I have a degree from the U of C.  Over the years, I’ve noticed that the University of Chicago, like Harvard, is one of those places where the dropouts are as famous as the grads.) Nichols had a successful career as part of a comedy duo with Elaine May during the late 1950s and early 1960s.

But when I think of Mike Nichols, I think of a couple of my favorite movies:  The Graduate (1967) and Postcards from the Edge (1990).  To me, The Graduate is one of the rare movies that is better than the source book.  Mike Nichols’ directing gave The Graduate a needed lighter, more comedic touch (Nichols received an Academy Award for Best Director).  The casting was also a great contribution to the movie’s success.  Much has been mentioned about Dustin Hoffman’s replacing the originally-intended Robert Redford in the part of Benjamin Braddock.  Hoffman, with his earnest, somewhat naive persona and his “average guy” looks, made the character of Braddock sympathetic.  As Nichols eventually realized, it would have been more difficult to get an audience to sympathize with a circa-1967 Robert Redford.  And although Anne Bancroft still played Mrs. Robinson as the self-absorbed predator of the book, her comic timing in the scenes with Hoffman rendered her somewhat likable.

Postcards from the Edge is based on Carrie Fisher’s semi-autobiographical novel.  (An aside for those of you who only think of Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, go read Postcards.) Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine play daughter and mother (based on Fisher’s real-life mother, Debbie Reynolds) in the film.  Although Postcards the movie isn’t as good as the book, it’s still pretty funny.  The interplay between Streep and MacLaine is classic, and puts a humorous spin on an otherwise tense relationship.  (For those who care, this film passes the Bechdel Test.)  And watch for the bit where Streep “hangs from a building” during a movie shoot.

Mike Nichols also worked with Meryl Streep on the great, but very serious, Silkwood (1983) as well as the comedy Heartburn (1986), adapted from Nora Ephron’s semi-autobiographical novel (yes, another one) about the dissolution of her marriage to famed journalist Carl Bernstein.  In Heartburn, as in The Graduate, casting plus directing are key elements.  The last time movie audiences saw the character of Carl Bernstein, he was portrayed by a still “earnest and somewhat naïve” Dustin Hoffman in All the President’s Men (1976).  Casting Jack Nicholson as the “Bernstein character” is a 180 degree shift from the earlier film.  Although, like Postcards, Heartburn the movie doesn’t measure up to the book, Nichols’ direction makes it entertaining.

I think that because of his earlier work with Elaine May, Mike Nichols the director had an awareness of women as “real people”, and therefore was able to bring forth fully-formed female performances.  I am sure that it wasn’t hard to do when working with good source materials such as Postcards and Heartburn. However, Nichols’ directing abilities were apparent when it came to fleshing-out the relatively flat character of Mrs. Robinson, as well as later on with the more challenging real-life personas of Karen Silkwood and her friend Dolly Pelliker in Silkwood (screenplay co-written by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen).

With Nichols’ death, Hollywood has lost a true talent.

Relevance is Comin’ to Town: Rankin/Bass Productions and Santa Claus

Earlier this year, Arthur Rankin, one of the founders of Rankin/Bass Productions with Jules Bass, died at age 89.  Rankin/Bass Productions (“RBP”) is probably best known for its Christmas TV specials, such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town and The Year Without a Santa Claus.  These specials have become so much a part of American pop culture it seems that a Christmas season doesn’t go by without a spoof of one.  One of the things that made the specials appealing at the time they were originally broadcast, and which contributes to their continuing appeal, is the parallels of the story lines to what was happening in the United States at the time.

Although Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), based on the popular song, focuses on the titular reindeer, Santa Claus plays an important role.  Rudolph, first broadcast during the time of the Civil Rights Movement, presents many lessons in acceptance.  When Santa at first rejects Rudolph based on his appearance, it reminds one of the real-life intolerance many authority figures of the 1960s had towards those who looked different.  (One could go further with this idea – was the Island of Misfit Toys a ghetto?) Once Santa recognizes Rudolph’s abilities, he realizes that Rudolph, given the chance, can be a productive member of North Pole society.  Similarly, the subplot regarding Hermey, the elf who wanted to be a dentist reflected the increasing desire of young people of the time to follow a path different from that of their parents.  That Hermey was able to work at the North Pole fixing dolls’ teeth showed that even the most traditional of places can find room for those who have different ideas.

In contrast to the authoritarian of Rudolph, Santa is downright rebellious in 1970’s Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (“SCCT”).  SCCT, first shown during the height of the “youthquake” of the Baby Boom generation, is the story of how the young and cute Kris Kringle becomes the jolly old elf we all know so well.   Kris, with his long, almost Beatlesque red hair and his sunny demeanor, spurs an uprising against the old uptight ways of the establishment – personified by the grumpy, anti-toy Burgermeister Meisterburger.  Along the way, Kris manages to find romance with the lovely town schoolteacher Jessica. In a scene that has been cut from recent showings of SCCT, Jessica sings about the changes Kris has brought to her and her town.  This reflects the real-life changes that youth brought to American life during the 1960s and early 1970s.

SCCT also draws a parallel between Santa and another iconic figure – Superman.  Both Santa and Superman were foundlings adopted by elderly couples.  Both assume an identity (Kris Kringle/Clark Kent) separate from their true identities (Claus/Kal-El).  Both have special powers that don’t manifest themselves until adulthood.  SCCT manages to wrap the heretofore mysterious Santa in a cloak (or cape, as it may be) familiar to many viewers.

A few years later, in 1974, RBP introduced The Year Without a Santa Claus (“YWSC”).  Departing from the generally “known” aspects of Santa’s world, and based on a book by Phyllis McGinley, YWSC was released at a time of moral crises in the United States.  The events of Watergate and the subsequent resignation of President Richard Nixon, as well as the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam, were on the minds of the American people.  Meanwhile, at the North Pole, Santa sees the increased disbelief in the spirit of Christmas.  Disappointed and discouraged, Santa decides to take a (permanent?) vacation instead of delivering toys.  It’s up to Mrs. Claus, with the help of a couple of elves, the reindeer Vixen, and a bunch of kids in a small Sunbelt town, to get her husband back in the sleigh.  The casting of Shirley Booth, TV’s “Hazel” from the 1960s, as Mrs. Claus is appropriate here. (This was also Shirley Booth’s last acting role.) Just as Hazel the maid took charge of a dysfunctional household, Mrs. Claus takes charge during the chaos.  In real life as well, women were beginning to take charge in many ways.

But despite the fact that Santa is encouraged enough to resume his duties (of course), YWSC may have been seen as too cynical for some people.  Network TV hasn’t shown this off-canon look at Santa Claus since 1980. The cable channel ABC Family does show YWSC as part of its “25 Days of Christmas”.  This hasn’t affected the popularity of YWSC one bit – there are regular references to it in other parts of pop culture.

Rudolph, SCCT and YWSC demonstrate that Rankin/Bass Productions, and in turn Arthur Rankin and (the still living) Jules Bass, recognized that American society was undergoing a shift.  Rankin and Bass were aware as well of the pop culture of the time, and of the need to be relevant to television viewers, no matter what their age or knowledge of current affairs.  For many of us who, as kids, sat in front of the television in our pajamas year after year, the underlying themes of these shows sunk in.  In any case, we continue to hold these shows dear in our hearts.

Lynne a.k.a. Poprocker1