Thursday, October 27, 2022

A Small Town 80s Halloween (or A New Decade of Furble)

Halloween is upon us, and at nearly 50 years old, I'm a bit too old to go out trick-or-treating, at least without kids. I suppose I could take the cats out, but I don't think that would go over very well. Although I think we'd make a killing on the candy front with the cuteness factor turned up to 11.

I do have some fond memories of Halloween growing up living in the country on the outskirts of a small town in the Midwest.

When you think of trick-or-treating, no doubt your brain conjures visions of costumed kids walking up and down suburban streets, knocking on all of the doors and collecting massive amounts of candy goodness. And, if you lived in town, or the city, this is mostly what happened. But for some of us that lived in the country, it was often a bit different.

For us, trick-or-treating consisted of piling our costumed selves into the car, and stopping at the houses of family and friends in the country. Once we'd made the rounds of those homes, we went into town and stopped at a few more known families. We did a bit of walking on the sidewalk, but only when the target destinations were close together. Mostly, it was a night of piling in and out of the car. Once we moved to Nebraska my senior year, my brothers were finally able to experience a "traditional" trick-or-treating event. There were high school seniors (and even college students) that would make the Halloween rounds, but that really wasn't my scene at that point.

Of course, there were many things that were the same no matter where you did your trick-or-treating. Candy is the name of the game, and we always managed to acquire quite the haul. Back in the 80s, we definitely saw more homemade treats than you would ever see today. Popcorn balls, caramel apples, fudge, truly awesome treats that required a level of trust in the giver that really doesn't exist now-a-days. Ever since someone supposedly tried to sneak a razor blade into a candy bar, the trust level of strangers with candy has fallen. Fortunately, tightly wrapped store-bought candy is still full of sugar.

Since my parents were busy taking us around for tricks-or-treats, they never stayed at home to hand out candy. When we moved to the city in the early 90s for dad to go back to college, this changed. A brief bit of backstory: during this time, dad had become good, uncannily good, at those claw machines filled with little stuffed animals. So much so that the house that they were living in at the time had shelves full of them. So, one Halloween, to supplement the candy they were giving out, they set up a big gameshow-style wheel where the kids could spin to see how many stuffed animals they would win. They gave away a bunch of toys that year. Truly unique.

Costumes seem to have evolved over the years. While there were still the homemade standards like the witch or scarecrow or the ghost in a bedsheet, there seemed to be a preponderance of kids in plastic masks and paper-cloth coveralls. Lots of uncanny valley Supermen, Spider-men, Draculas, and plenty more. Many of these costumes didn't last much beyond the night, and if they did, they were brought out year after year. Today you see a lot more makeup effects, fairy wings, and glitter, with a few Scream and Universal Monster full-face masks thrown in for good measure. All in good fun for the October holiday.

All of this to say, while Halloween looks quite a bit different today while living in the city, there are still aspects that remain. And it is one of my favorite holidays. SUGAR RUSH!!!

Now, on to this week's comic selections.

Strip 134/166 - Sports reference. Unsurprisingly, doesn't happen much.

Chicago Bears' quarterback Jim McMahon was one of the higher profile NFL players of the 80s. Like most every NFL football player since ever, he had suffered a number of injuries during his career, from bruised ribs to a lacerated kidney to a torn rotator cuff. But, it was the one game where he sat out due to a sprained finger that all of the late-night comedians latched onto. You can suffer greatly for your career, but people only remember the latest paper cut.

Strip 135/166 - It's a new decade for our favorite alien

A new decade calls for new political humor. Fortunately, the old political humor is still relevant.

Strip 136/166 - How else do you think these things happen?

There's a theory of time travel that says whatever a person from the future would do to change the past, it would somehow convolute to ensure that the timeline doesn't actually change. There's also a theory that time travelers are responsible for everything that goes wrong. That's known as a conspiracy theory, or the Furble Theory (I made that last part up, but it works).

Strip 137/166 - One last Halloween gift

I've long been a fan of the monsters in the old Universal horror movies. Films like The Mummy and Creature From the Black Lagoon are my earliest memories of scary movie viewing late on Saturday nights. It seemed apropos to mix the Universal Monsters with Furble for this last interstitial. And, honestly, of all of the gallery strips that I did, this is one of my favorites. I enjoyed the creature designs that I came up with, and the Furble puns were not the worst I'd come up with. You take what you can get.

Sadly, we're coming to the end of Night Talk with Furble, and we're counting down to the last days of the strip itself. But there's still more adventure to come. See you next week!

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

The Second One With the Writing Prompt (or The Interstitials)

Sometimes, when you're trying to be creative, the ideas flow from your brain. And sometimes your brain gets constipated. When that happens, you pull out a writing prompt from your Writer's Book of Tricks.

So, here goes. My life growing up, for better or worse, centered a fair amount on popular media of the 80s. The question this week is:

What are 5 television shows that affected you growing up?

1. M*A*S*H

This one will always be at the top of the list when talking about television shows of the 80s. While it was primarily a product of the 70s, I knew it more from the syndicated reruns that played constantly during my adolescent years. Dad was huge fan, as I've pointed out previously. If M*A*S*H was on network somewhere, there's a better than average chance that it was on the TV in our house, at least when dad was home. I never really asked dad what he liked about the show, whether it was the actors, the writing, the situations, etc. Whatever the reason, he got a lot of enjoyment from it.

While me liking the show certainly wasn't a forgone conclusion, it was fortunate that I enjoyed it for as much as it was on in the house. It was uproariously funny and heartbreakingly serious at the same time. The variety of subject matter from episode to episode kept it from being a completely formulaic sitcom and turned it into something truly special. Alan Alda was by far my favorite actor on the show, but I disliked none of the actors on the show. Even someone as deplorable as Larry Linville's Frank Burns was fun to watch because the actor was legitimately enjoyable.

M*A*S*H taught me that joy can come out of tragedy.

2. The Bugs Bunny/Roadrunner Hour

I watched cartoons on Saturday morning, like every other kid growing up in the 70s and 80s. And while there were a plethora of cartoon options during that 6 hour span of time across 3 networks, there were very few that I watched with as much regularity as The Bugs Bunny/Roadrunner Hour. The funny thing is, there was rarely anything new about the weekly show. Each episode was comprised of a number of Looney Tunes shorts, primarily from the 50s and 60s, programmed over and over again in different combinations.

Of course, it helps that nearly every single one is a timeless classic. Legendary animation directors like Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, and Robert McKimson created animated short subjects that were engaging, entertaining, and told a story in 8 minutes. The short running time was perfect for a young mind that found it hard to concentrate on anything for more than 10 minutes at a time, and the visual style was such that it didn't wear you out with extensive detail, focusing on telling/showing the story. Along with the story and visuals, the music was just as important to their enjoyment. Without knowing it, kids were being introduced to classical composers like Wagner and Strauss, like an instrumental ninja. "What's Opera, Doc?" directly informed my love for opera, and I watch it (and the rest of them) to this day.

3. Star Trek: The Next Generation

As I've pointed out previously, I wasn't really what you'd consider a "Trekkie/Trekker" growing up. I knew about Star Trek, obviously. I had watched some TOS episodes in reruns, and we had gone to see the first four movies in the theatre. But it just didn't give me the same amount of joy at the time as the Star Wars universe did. That all changed with the premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

I had been following the development of the series via articles in Starlog and entertainment news segments on television. I was amazed at the sophistication of the visual effects, which were a far cry from the original series, and looked better than any other television show at the time. I really liked the design of the new Enterprise, and I liked the evolution of designs of other ships compared to their classic counterparts. And it was going to star one of my favorite PBS presenters, LeVar Burton (being a huge fan or Reading Rainbow). It had so much going for it, I couldn't see how it could fail. And, to be perfectly honest, in my young eyes it succeeded in meeting my expectations.

Today I can look back at the first season and see its flaws. Had Twitter existed in 1987, it would have been ruthlessly destroyed before it ever got a chance to be good. Fortunately for the show, and the future of the Star Trek franchise, it got much better.

TNG taught me that, while new isn't aways better, sometimes it is, and we should keep an open mind about it.

4. Gargoyles

It's still not an uncommon opinion that animated television shows are for kids. It's a trope that has existed forever. It has, at least, in North America. The Japanese have been created animated entertainment for adults for decades. It's taken the Western world a long time to come to terms with the fact that adults can enjoy animated programming that isn't designed for kids. Now, there's almost more animation directed at grown-ups than at their children. An early example of Disney experimenting with this format is the show Gargoyles.

The gargoyles are ancient creatures who are stone during the day, but come alive at night. The designs are based off the gargoyle stone carvings often found on European castles, complete with claws and wings. They had been in an enchanted sleep for a thousand years, and woke up in modern-day New York City after their castle was relocated there by the billionaire David Xanatos. Now, they patrol the city at night protecting humanity, trying to find answers to their mysterious past.

While some of the characters did provide levity during the episodes, the story and action were darker than most children's shows at the time. This skewed the series much more towards an adolescent age range, while picking up many adult fans, as well. The animation was also much more detailed than television cartoons at that time. Add to this the voice cast including many alumni from the popular Star Trek: The Next Generation series, including Jonathan Frakes, Marina Sirtis, and Michael Dorn, and you've got the makings of a hit, which it was.

While I was a fan of Japanese imports like Robotech and Battle of the Planets, Gargoyles gave me a love and craving for serious, dramatic animation.

5. Doctor Who

This one was always going to be on a list like this. From the first moment I watched it on a Saturday afternoon in 1983, this show stuck with me. My dad was never going to be a fan, as the only British thing he ever really liked was James Bond, but once mom watched it, she too became a fan. When Doctor Who moved to Friday nights on Iowa PBS, we both stayed up late to watch it. I recorded every episode that I could on video tape, and watched many of them over and over (and wore on the tape on a couple). I've been a fan of the show ever since. I won't go on any longer about this show since we've discussed it at length already on this blog, but it is integral in my enjoyment of all science fiction that has come after it.

Thus ends the writing prompt. That's a little bit more about me.

As for this week's strips, on the surface it seems that I've resorted to some old habits upon running low on ideas for the current story. But, in my mind, I viewed these as the "skits" that sometimes showed up on the late night shows, like when Johnny Carson would do the reporter on the street bit, or David Letterman's Top 10 Lists. That's how I justified them, at least. Did they work any better this way? That's a bit more questionable.

Strip 130/166 - Commentary one-liners

This is by far the weakest of the lot. Four panels of text, no art. Quick-jab one-liner commentary on current events that absolutely do not stand the test of time. If nothing else, it proves that I was paying attention to the news each night, which not all of my peers were doing at the time.

Strip 131/166 - A completely different kind of scare

Health has always been a popular topic of public service announcements. I viewed this strip as something akin to PSAs that used scare tactics to get their message across. What's better than making the evils of high cholesterol a movie monster looking to sink its fangs into your arteries?

Strip 132/166 - Aww, you gonna dis Santa like that?

Come on, the guy subsides on cookies and milk. What do you expect?

Strip 133/166 - Be honest, Furble is all of us here

It doesn't take long to come to the realization that New Year's Eve resolutions are largely bunk, and there to make you feel good about yourself for about a week into the new year before you decide that it's all too hard, and you'd rather go back to the way things were last year. Furble's just saying what we're all thinking, right?

More interstitials next week, with a Halloween twist at the end!

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Not the Hellfire Club (or The Ups and Downs of Late Night Talk)

The Netflix series Stranger Things was a surprise hit, and over its 4 seasons has become a full-blown pop-culture phenomenon. In many ways, it is a love-letter to us Gen-Xers who grew up in the 80s, with tons of references to television shows, movies, music, and about anything else you can think of that was popular during the decade.

Given the sci-fi/horror/fantasy themes of a series set in the 80s, it isn't surprising to hear that Dungeons and Dragons plays heavily into the plot of the show. The first episode of the entire series starts out with the main characters involved in a long-running D&D campaign. Creatures featured throughout the series are heavily inspired, if not lifted verbatim, from the source material for the game. If you ever played the game growing up, or play it now, you will immediately feel familiar with the core of the series.

The recent season 4 introduced us to the Hellfire Club. This was a group of kids that were very serious about the game, including having scheduled game days, LARP-esque props, even matching t-shirts, and campaigns that apparently lasted for weeks at a time. It was a way for this group of social misfits to feel part of a group, which is why a lot of us got into the game in the first place.

My own experience with Dungeons and Dragons was not nearly as involved as the Hellfire Club. We had no matching t-shirts, no prop weapons, no miniatures. In general, we stuck to campaigns that we either purchased from TSR, or things that were printed in Dungeon Magazine. It was unusual for a campaign to last more that a couple of nights, much less multiple weeks. And we weren't ever faced with the threat of a Lovecraftian monster hellbent on destroying our town.

The latest season of Stranger Things touches on the hysteria around the supposed demonic origins of the game, fueled by news services looking for the next big story which, in turn, fueled the largely Christian backlash against the game and those that were playing it. There were definitely parents that forbade their kids from playing the game, fearful that it would lead to a life of satan worship and debauchery. Fortunately, our parents didn't subscribe to such theories, and let us enjoy our game time.

There were some similarities between our gaming and how it is portrayed in the show. We partook of copious amounts of junk food, pizza, and soda during our gaming sessions. We listened to a fair amount of moderately-hard rock like AC/DC and Metallica. Our play sessions would often start Fridays after school, going into the wee hours of Saturday morning. And it was some of the best time that I remember from my school years. As a bullied nerd longing to belong to something, it was the perfect outlet.

Watching Stranger Things transports me back to those days, and the power of nostalgia takes hold. If you grew up in the 80s, even if you weren't someone who nerded-out to things like D&D and video games, you'll still find something to identify with in the series.

Now for something completely different...

"Night Talk with Furble" extends its season.

Strip 126/166 - Political humor. Har, har, har.

If you step in the Way Back Machine to the late 80s, George H. W. Bush was elected President, with running mate Dan Quayle as his VP. Compared to the 70-year-old Bush, the 42-year-old Quayle seemed a kid in comparison. But, when Quayle tried to correct a 12-year-old's (correct) spelling of "potato", comparisons to a school child by the comedians of the day were inevitable.

Strip 127/166 - Maybe a taller chair?

Well, somebody had to bring it up.

Strip 128/166 - A second reference to the Bakker scandal

It isn't unusual for the late-night set to address the same scandal on multiple occasions. This comic came after Jim Bakker had been sentenced to jail for fraud. Perhaps someone should fire whomever is in charge of booking guests for the show. Unfortunately, that may be FC. It was never established.

Strip 129/166 - Going to have to get set construction on the phone

This is the only time we see Furble in full during the "Night Talk" series. Kind of made it easy on myself by having two panes with simple onomatopoeia here. Don't worry, the set will soon be back in order.

More "Night Talk" next week!

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Pat Sajak! (or How Furble Got His Own Talk Show)

I'm departing a bit from my established format to talk about what I consider one of the best runs of Furble that I came up with during its lifespan. As I've stated in previous weeks, I've got Pat Sajak to thank for that. Let me explain..

For those that have ignored television for the past 50 years, Pat Sajak has been the host of the very popular gameshow Wheel of Fortune. He joins the company of such hosts as Bob Barker and Alex Trebek in being almost inextricably linked to a single, long-running show. Sajak is associated with the show almost as much as his cohost, letter-turner extraordinaire Vanna White. Which is why some may not believe that, from 1989 to 1990, Sajak actually hosted his own late-night talk show, sans Vanna White.

As the turn of the decade approached, it was becoming clear that the current "King of Late Night" Johnny Carson was likely to announce his retirement from The Tonight Show within the next couple of years (he retired in 1992). Then-vice president of late-night programming for CBS Michael Brockman wanted the network to have an established late-night talk show to fill in the void that would be left when Carson eventually exited from NBC's popular time slot. Brockman knew Sajak from before his time on Wheel, when he was a weatherman at KNBC in LA. He had talked to Pat about hosting a gameshow back then, but he turned the offer down at the time.

Michael approached Pat in 1986, and asked him about the possibility of hosting a late-night talk show. Pat confirmed his interest, and once Brockman had all of the executive approvals and network affiliates on-board, they went into production.

They spent over $4 million on a new soundstage, and hired over 30 new people to work on the show. Sajak was quoted at the time as saying that he wasn't looking to "raise the level of TV", and that he planned to "steal liberally" from previous late-night shows for the format of the new show.

The Pat Sajak Show premiered on January 9, 1989, and lasted until April 13, 1990. Upon its premiere, it became the butt of many jokes, many falling into the group of "if Sajak can do it, anyone can".

And this is where we come to Furble. Now in its third year in print, I was really struggling to find a new direction for the strip. Something that would be a little more far-reaching, that could encompass more than a couple of weeks, and didn't have to involve recurring characters or gags. When I started to hear the jokes around The Pat Sajak Show, I struck upon the idea "if anyone can get a talk show, why not Furble?"

Strip 122/166 - Sure, why not?

And, Night Talk with Furble was born.

Strip 123/166 - Current topic is current

One of the advantages (disadvantages?) of doing a talk show format is the opportunity to do topical comedy. Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker (spelled wrong in the strip, oh well) were televangelists. Jim was convicted of accounting fraud related to their televangelist platform, The PTL Club. Tammy Faye was known for wearing obscene amounts of make-up, and would often burst out in tears when discussing her then-husband's misdeeds, causing her mascara to run. While I don't think it ever got to the point of projectile running, it could happen, right?

Strip 124/166 - Life is better behind the desk, anyway

One of the tropes of the late-night talk show is the host sitting behind a large desk, interviewing guests. I thought it would be funny if the production staff didn't take Furble's actual status into account when building the set. So, for the entire run of the "show", we only see Furbles antennae sticking above the desk. While I thought it was clever, it had the added advantage of making each strip setup extremely easy and quick.

Strip 125/166 - Never work with kids or animals

Animals on late-night talk shows are a common trope. While we seldom see the aftermath of their visits, I have to imagine that clean-up and a quick spray of air freshener wasn't ever called for.

Night Talk with Furble continues next week...