Good Movie; Lame-Ass Book

They’re almost never as good as the movies, themselves, but novelizations of current films have been published since the 1920s; and the latest novelization on the stands is quite interesting . . . but not in a good way.

Alan Dean Foster has spent a large part of his writing career writing film and tv adaptations, and he has been a player in the Star Trek sandbox since the early ’70s. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was based on a story Foster wrote for Gene Roddenberry, and the rumors persist that Foster ghost wrote the 1979 novelization under the Roddenberry name. He’s also written Trek audio stories and ten novelizations adapted from the animated Trek series.

His latest trek into Trek is the novelization of the current blockbuster that’s revitalizing the franchise, J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek. Unfortunately, the novelization is nowhere near as exciting, nor as interesting, as the film itself. With this one, it seems like Foster wrote the book in his sleep, took the money, and moved on.

The writing is especially limp. The frenetic energy on the screen is barely captured by Foster’s prose, whereas in his own, original fiction, his sentences usually snap with precision and propel the reader into Foster’s universe. Foster can write well — I would put any of his ten Star Trek Logs up against this novelization, and the weakest of the animated novelizations would win. The culprit here may, of course, have been Paramount. I’m betting they gave Foster a very small window to churn this book out and return the top-secret screenplay to them. He probably wrote it inside a month to meet the deadline — and it shows. There are few character nuances, and no expansion of background or scenes. This is the movie, almost line by line, transferred to the printed page with no depth at all.

That’s a shame. One of the best novelizations was the very first film adaptation, which — if Foster did write it — was slow, but extremely intelligent and thoughtful, and it expanded on the universe of Star Trek and making it more real than the cheesy sets of 1960’s tv ever did.

Arguably, the best novelization was the one that accompanied what most critics think (and I agree) was the best of the Trek films, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. Vonda McIntyre was allowed the opportunity to expand on characterizations and add transitions and expositionary scenes so that the movie became even more fleshed out. Watching the film for the first time, I remember shaking my head in disbelief when Kirstie Alley as the Vulcan Saavik cried when Spock died. Only in the book was it explained that Saavik was half Vulcan, half Romulan. (That aspect was subsequently left out of the next film with Saavik, but has been explored in the series of novels and comic books since.)

I just got back from Barnes & Noble, where I exchanged Star Trek for a book by Tom Davis on the first and best years of Saturday Night Live. I couldn’t finish the Trek book. Three chapters into it, I gave up. It’s a shame this new universe of Star Trek could not have been further explored here. I’m sure it will be eventually, but I suggest that if you want more depth and understanding of this new Star Trek timeline, go pick up Star Trek: Countdown, the prequel story published last month as a graphic novel. It starts in our timeline and shows all the events that lead up to the very first scene in the film, and makes the whole new Trek a much richer experience. It also brings back a very dead character from the time of the Next Generation, and makes him very much alive and well in the center seat of the Enterprise-E.

Star Trek lives!

Our Canadian Actor Friend

Maria and I lived in Orlando in 1991 and half of ’92. We made a lot of new friends there, mostly Disney employees, and most from the Adventurers Club on Pleasure Island.

The Adventurers Club, sadly, is closed now, devoid of improv, comedy, special effects and songs, except when private banquets rent the place out (which I hear will cease some time this year). Our friends, however still exist. We keep in touch with two very good ones, Darin DePaul, a Broadway actor, and Mike Speller, a writer and actor in Chicago, both of whom I’ve blogged and bragged about. They are two of the nicest and most talented guys I know — and the last of the true gentlemen.

Darin and Mike. They’re the best!

We lost contact with Paula Pell, a wonderful comic actress and voice talent when we knew her. She was the first actor at the Club to talk about how she loved it in Orlando and that we should move from Virginia. Then she left Disney and somehow found her way to New York, where she currently writes for Saturday Night Live. She pops up occasionally on the show, as Lorne’s wife or, usually, as a member of the studio audience. Not a bad gig.

Paula Pell

I was downstairs in the kitchen tonight, my fingers oily from rubbing skin medicine onto my cocker spaniel’s nose, when I heard Maria scream incoherently shortly before 11:00.

I yelled upstairs, “You all right?”

Silence. Then, real fast: “GETUPHERE!

I smeared the meds on a paper towel and took the steps three at a time. Maria was grinning as she pointed at her TV. There was Genie Francis, getting married to Ted McGinley in the final scene of some ubiquitous Hallmark cable tv chick flick.

And there, in the center, officiating at their wedding, was another alumnus from the Adventurers Club, and our friend, Kristian Truelsen.

The tv movie is The Note II: Taking a Chance on Love, and you can read a little about it on Kris’s blog, Ghost Balloon. (The exact post is here.)

It was great to see his smiling face on the screen, if only for a few seconds. We usually only exchange Christmas cards nowadays, and that’s a shame, because Kris is a fine and dedicated actor, a hell of a comic talent and improv artist, and a great conversationalist. He turned me on to lateral thinking puzzles, for which I will NEVER forgive him, on the same day he, Mike, Darin and I attended a Clinton-Gore rally in Orlando in 1992. Then we had lunch at the best restaurant in Orlando at the time, Pebbles (now just a distant memory).

Please visit Kris at his blog or at his professional website, and please go to his post on IMDB to check what movies or tv shows you may have seen him in. And if you drop him a line, tell him Rusty sent you…and that Maria and I miss him!

Double Secret Probation

I can’t watch Mad TV: I don’t think it’s funny; just dumb. Comedy for teens. Everybody I know loves The Office, but I find very little of it funny; mostly it’s farcical, and I don’t respond to farce. Farce makes fun of everyone, including the characters you’re supposed to feel sympathetic toward; and I think, the viewer, as well. I much prefer 30 Rock; the characters have an edge, and the jokes are actually funny. Likewise Frasier, the classic The Dick Van Dyke Show, Cheers, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Tales From the Crypt, even; and the best of Saturday Night Live.

It seems like getting a good laugh whenever you want one has gone the way of fizzies in the fountain.

America has been on Double Secret Probation for a long time, now. The funniest, grown-up magazine of the 1970s has disappeared, gone into hiding. It was Mad for adults. It was Laugh-In: the Next Generation. It was outlaw. It was anti-establishment — with tits. It was dirty. It was sick. It was wild, and rude, and on the mark, and contemporary, and puerile, and pornographic and wonderful.

And it’s gone.

I miss National Lampoon.

Saturday Night Live, on occasion, still resonates with echoes of its Lampoon roots under the aegis of Michael O’Donoghue, John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Anne Beatts, Chevy Chase and a few others. And National Lampoon (Inc.) still exists as a company that occasionally makes direct-to-dvd features catering to the high-school-hijinx market. There’s even a website, but it’s a sad, pale shadow of the magazine’s past.

The Powers That Be need to bring it back.

The name came from its founders, who had been writers/creators at the Harvard Lampoon, the campus humor magazine. They brought that same sophomoric sensibility to a national level in 1970 — but it quickly became something else. It became a national voice.

I was eleven when NatLamp first appeared on the racks. I remember leafing through it sneakily at the West End Pharmacy in Hampton — they had a wonderful newsstand there, where I bought comic books every week for the first part of my literary life, and occasionally sneaked peeks at “dirty” magazines, such as Stag, Playboy, Rolling Stone (they said fuck occasionally) and, in 1970, National Lampoon. (It was also the place where I bought every issue of the monthly newspaper that was a rival to Forrest Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland: The Monster Times.)

First issue

That first cover may not look very sexy today, but in 1970, it was not only hot, but it was . . . weird. That labeled it taboo in Hampton, Virginia, and in almost every other town in America.

That’s probably why the mag caught on. It wasn’t normal. It was bad.

I sneaked peeks at it every now and then, looking especially for the black and white Foto Funnies, where some big-breasted chick would usually expose herself in some pre- or post-coital comedy sequence.

Finally, age 15, after a few years of buying Playboy here and there (I started at 13), I screwed up the courage to buy National Lampoon. I had to. I had just started reading the books of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and the preeminent cover artist for Burroughs and the Robert E. Howard Conan books — at that time — was Frank Frazetta. And this cover . . .

. . . was rude, sacrilegious, sf and funny at the same time. And Frazetta. When this issue, devoted to Science Fiction, came out, I had to have it, no matter what my parents thought. I didn’t care.

My favorite Martian joke from that issue:

What’s 33?
Martian 69.

Man, I still love that!

In those first, five, best years — it kind of reminds you of SNL, doesn’t it? Those years really were the best, weren’t they? — National Lampoon captured the essence of the ’70s, and created the cynical spark of today’s comedy. Nixon jokes, Agnew hatred; anti-establishment, anti-pedestrian (read that as anti-Muggle) humor; sex, death; homo vampires; Tarzan of the Cows, sexy Nazis, Gahan Wilson cartoons; Son-O-God Comics; headlines: Experts Find Unexplained Gaps in Nixon State of the Union Address; Desperate Dems Delve for Diminutive Dingus (a question for Senator Kennedy: “What would be your reaction, Senator, if the convention drafted you?” Answer: “I’ll drive off that bridge when I come to it.” The ads for posters, black light posters, nude posters; six 8-track tapes for 99ยข; JOB rolling papers . . . “Pinto’s First Lay,” by Chris Miller . . . part of the genesis of Animal House; “First Blowjob” (one of my favorite short stories . . . padiddle); “Young ‘Dr.’ Pinky.” The Encyclopedia, almost completely written by SNL’s Michael O’Donoghue.

My God, it’s a legacy of humor.

And where is it now?

Where is printed humor now?

Lampoon deserves to return as a magazine — cutting edge, like The Onion, or The Daily Show on paper, or Saturday Night Live without the censors. This is the 21st Century. We need comedy that’s razor-fine, rude, crude, in the mood, and completely politically incorrect — but instead of biting humor that dares to rip the throat out of its well-deserving targets, all we have are Ellen, and lolcats, and The World According to Jim. SNL — even though I love it and watch every new episode — is a weak-assed mirror of 2009’s pussy-whipped cultural mores: funny here and there, but not daring to break the walls or create the comedic paradigms that SNL 1975 and National Lampoon did 34+ years ago.


Nowadays, say the words “National Lampoon” and they won’t remember the magazine. National. Lampoon. Just words. What’s a lampoon, anyway?

So, say, “National Lampoon” about the movies, and people will eventually light up and remember, Vacation, Christmas Vacation, or Chevy Chase.

But the first and best National Lampoon movie was Animal House.

Based on true stories, then fictionalized, by NL writer Chris Miller, Animal House . . .

[is] all a fiction, though it’s based loosely on the college and/or high school experiences of the three writers, Harold Ramis, Chris Miller, and Doug Kenney–particularly the last two.

The character “Pinto” is based on two different earlier characters which appeared in National Lampoon: First, his “real” name in the movie–Larry Kroger–is also the name of the “owner” of the National Lampoon 1964 High School Yearbook Parody, the creation of Doug Kenney and P.J. O’Rourke. Larry Kroger (in the yearbook parody) is clearly Kenney’s alter ego, and Kenney did, of course, become an editor of National Lampoon. (Initially, the movie was to be set in the high school of the yearbook parody, until they decided to incorporate Miller’s material–see below.) Kenney’s “First Lay Comics” (from the February 1974 issue) and “First High Comics” (from the January 1975 issue) were also adapted for scenes in the film.

Larry Kroger’s nickname in the movie, “Pinto,” was originally the nickname of the protagonist in several short stories by Chris Miller, “The Night of the Seven Fires” (from the October 1974 issue) and “Pinto’s First Lay” (from the September 1975 issue). (There was also a third story: “Good Sports” in the December 1989 issue.) These stories were based on his frat-house days at Dartmouth College, and the “Pinto” character, always referred to only by nickname, is presumably Miller’s younger self.

Kenney’s “Kroger” and Miller’s “Pinto” are melded into one character in Animal House, freely adapting the two writers’ works into one story. Some of the other characters also came from the yearbook parody (e.g., Faun Rosenberg) and Miller’s stories (e.g., Otter). Not sure where Blutarsky came from other than Belushi himself.

Both Kenney and Miller had small parts in the film as members of the Delta House fraternity–Kenney played “Stork” (the nerd) and Miller played a suave-looking guy named “Hardbar.”

That’s all info I found on a very large website. They have a wealth of Animal House trivia. Go there. Also, buy Chris Miller’s semi-true book:

Somehow I missed the 30-year anniversary of National Lampoon’s Animal House last year. The dvd is on the shelves, so I’ll go pick it up. And I’ll remember Bluto and D-Day and the other Deltas, and double secret probation, along with the National Lampoon Newspaper Parody and all the letters from the editors, The Job of Sex, and the story that inspired Vacation . . .

We’re really missing out. We need National Lampoon — and we need it now!