Archive for Consumerism

Tasteless

I want to talk about death.

No no, don’t worry, not in a morbid way.

Today marks the thirtieth anniversary of the death of the great Mel Blanc, the legendary actor who gave life to countless cartoon characters, most notably the majority of the Looney Tunes characters at Warner Bros.

As most people who know even a little bit about me know, I am a huge Looney Tunes fan, and Mel had become one of my heroes. Ironically, my initial interest in acting and voice work had nothing to do with cartoons but rather because of my childhood fondness for comedian (and eventual Full House star) Dave Coulier, who at time starred on a short-lived but nostalgically remembered Nickelodeon show called Out of Control. When I was just six, Dave was the first celebrity that I ever met in person, and the idea of someone making a living off entertaining, doing funny voices, and making goofy sounds enamored me so. (I do have a Polaroid of us together, though it’s currently in storage. I may dig it out one day to add to this blog post.) – SEE EDIT AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS ENTRY!

When I finally rediscovered the Looney Tunes cartoons in the late 1980s and started to truly appreciate the work of not only Mel but also all of the animators and directors, Mel was near the end of his life. I would have loved to been able to tell him how much his work has meant to me.

Mel died at age 81 while in the hospital undergoing some semi-routine check-ups. As a child, to me 81 seemed pretty old, and perhaps ghoulishly, I had used that as a baseline as far as thinking if someone else had died too young or too old. It’s so funny because now you have celebrities like Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, and Dick Van Dyke still alive and actively working well into their nineties. It’s so weird how common it is to hear that someone like Billy Graham or Zsa Zsa Gabor lived to 99–99! (My own great-grandmother died when she was 102, while my great-aunt who is still alive turned 101 last year!) We’re now in a time where 80 is the new 60, I guess.

Anyway, Mel’s official cause of death was attributed to heart disease, although according to his son Noel, Mel had suffered a fall from his hospital bed (apparently the side rails were not put up) and broke his leg, resulting in an embolism. Whatever the cause of death, Mel was in the hospital to get his lungs looked at after a lifetime of smoking had given him emphysema.

Look, I don’t like to preach, but if you are to take away anything from this blog post, it’s this: don’t smoke. Please, just don’t. And if you do smoke now, please quit. I don’t care if it relaxes you; go get a massage or spend a day at a spa or listen to some ASMR on YouTube. I don’t care if it helps you maintain your weight; go exercise instead. I don’t care if you’ve simply done it for so long or whatever. Just stop it. It’s not worth it. I have lost far too many people close to me due to smoking-related illnesses. It’s just too dangerous of a vice.

Anyway, Mel’s death resulted in an outpouring of love and condolences from cartoon fans around the world. For many, it felt as if it wasn’t just Mel Blanc but also Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Tweety, etc. who had died. Warner Bros. was about to formally launch a fiftieth-birthday celebration for Bugs, and the company was suddenly having to scramble to figure out a way to promote and sell the character without his voice artist being at the ready for Bugs to make “appearances.” Central to the plans was a new theatrical Bugs Bunny short, Box Office Bunny, going into production, which now had to be (hastily) recast. In the three decades since Mel’s death, Bugs and the gang have gone through a laundry list of actors hoping to carry on in Mel’s place–with two notable names, Greg Burson and Joe Alaksey, even passing away themselves in the meantime–which just illustrates how irreplaceable Mel Blanc was and is and how much of a loss his death meant to the animation world.

Shortly following his death, Warner Bros. ran a simple, effective memorial in the Hollywood trade papers. Designed by animator and Box Office Bunny director Darrell Van Citters, the image featured nine of Mel’s characters solemnly bowing their heads to a vacant microphone under a spotlight. The caption was short but effective: “Speechless.”

The original “Speechless” image.

It was a moving tribute, and in the years after Mel’s death there was a growing demand from collectors to want to own a reproduction of the image. In 1993 the Warner Bros. Studio Stores obliged by offering “Speechless” as an open edition lithograph, meaning that no set number would be produced and that it would continue to be printed as long as there was consumer interest. (Speechless is still being sold to this day through the outsourced WBShop.com, which means it was so open of an edition that it actually outlived the existence of the Studio Stores by another eighteen years and counting!) Some animation fans have expressed the opinion that it’s crass of Warner Bros. to sell the memorial and turn it into just another higher-end product, which originally sold for $150 framed. I get that to a point, but to another point I understand the need for fans to want to memorialize someone without whom they likely wouldn’t be fans in the first place. I personally own a framed print of Speechless and to this day it still resonates with me. I have no interest in building any kind of Elvis-like shrine or anything, but as someone who has an interest in these films and particularly in voice acting, owning this piece to honor someone I greatly admire means a lot to me. And evidently it means a lot to other people as well, or otherwise at some point they’d stop printing and selling it.

This is, however, where my defense of commercialization and corporate greed ends. Because in the wake of the lithograph’s debut to the consumer public, Warner Bros. has turned that simple, effective tribute image into a whole frickin’ product line! Between 1994 and 2008, Speechless has spawned spin-offs, a plate, a figurine, a diorama, a cel, an interactive wall mural, and even a sequel lithograph! With almost each subsequent item being sold at a higher price point than the last, Warner Bros. has repeatedly tried to capitalize on fans’ sentimentality and turn it into an entire franchise in and of itself. Obviously that’s what major media conglomerates do and have always done, but Jesus, is there anything more ghoulish and unsettling as figures of the Looney Tunes characters in mourning??

The very stupid “Speechless Stage” from 1994.

I guess I’ll go more or less in chronological order here, because there was no progression to the release of these products that made a lick of sense. The first Speechless cash-in came about in 1994 with the Speechless Stage, which looks more like an action figure playset than anything meant to convey respect or sorrow. The Looney Tunes characters are recreated as resin figurines in their downcast poses, affixed onto a vaudeville-like stage complete with curtains and footlights. The whole thing is housed in a weird fishbowl-like plexiglass case, with the “Speechless” text printed on the outside. Oh, and of course, Warner Bros. had to clutter up the backdrop by slapping on the WB shield front and center.

The added visuals annoy me to no end. Part of the impact of the original “Speechless” image was the bare sparseness of it. The characters and the microphone are standing in an otherwise empty white void. There’s no floor or walls or anything. Your eyes can only focus on the gang and what they’re experiencing. But here in this oddball figure display they couldn’t just let the emptiness speak for itself; they had to add crap. An ugly tan floor and gold curtains and a black wall–yeah, that’s the change this image needed! From an empty white void to a cold black wall. And this is to say nothing of the fact that it’s all being done to create the look of a live theater stage, as opposed to…you know…an animation studio or radio booth or you know…anything Mel Blanc was actually KNOWN FOR.

Even if one gets past the tackiness of the additions, what the hell is someone supposed to DO with this? The original Speechless print you hang on a wall, but this is what? Does this go on a mantle or a fireplace or in a curio cabinet? (A case for a cased-in item?) It’s too bulky and three-dimensional to mount onto a wall at all, and too many of its elements are far too breakable to just leave out in the open for a kid or wandering cat to knock over. So, what purpose does it serve other than to collect dust?

The very stupid “Speechless 3-D” plate, 1997.

The idea of wanting to three-dimensionalize Speechless came again in 1997 with the release of a 3-D plate for $55. The Warner Bros. Studio Store gallery team loved the idea of plates, for some reason. Most of the ones that were sold over the years were basic flat plates with charmingly painted (and likely highly toxic) images of the studio’s various characters, but somewhere along the line someone thought people also really wanted thick, hard-to-display plates with lumpy figural images sticking out (such as one that essentially looked like someone glued a Batman Beyond action figure right onto the front of it). For the Speechless 3-D plate, the main figural image is the cluster of cartoon characters in mourning, with Mel’s vacant microphone shoved off to the side and into the background. No caption of any sort this time, but a very cartoony stage and red curtains were added to the picture. The WB shield again appears lined around the rim of the plate, alternating with the head of Mel’s microphone. Yuck.

There was one final (so far) attempt to create some sort of toy based on the “Speechless” image, and it came in 1998 from those two words that makes many an art collector’s eyes roll: Ron Lee.

Who is Ron Lee, some of you may say? Oh, consider yourself lucky that you are not aware.

The very stupid “Speechless” Ron Lee figurine, 1998.

Ron Lee made a name for himself with an endless series of miniature statuettes. If you’ve never seen one, they’re tiny pewter figurines with gold plating that are then painted over in glossy colors, then affixed onto a white onyx base. These were somewhat popular pseudo-art pieces in the late 1990s, usually owned by people who thought they were buying actual art sculptures.

Ron Lee thought of himself as some sort of three-dimensional Norman Rockwell artist, trying to convey whimsical scenes with a nostalgic slant. He specialized in figurines of hobo clowns in the Emmett Kelly style, but really, he whored himself out to whichever company or entity needed to push their designs (M&M characters, etc.). Some of his work also had a bit of a condescending right-wing slant to them, including a ridiculous sculpture depicting Ronald Reagan on the face of Mount Rushmore (another Rushmore piece also featured Yosemite Sam as a fifth head, so go figure). Lee died in early 2017 of a stroke and his family has been slowly liquidating the company since then.

For the Speechless Ron Lee, the characters become these lumpy globs, looking almost like something a child would make out of Play-doh for a school project. The microphone is present, but there is no indication of Mel’s name or even the otherwise obligatory “Speechless” tagline, which like on the 3-D plate are both missing again. Many other Ron Lee pieces include a small “title card” where such a notation would have been appropriate, so its removal here was either a curious aesthetic choice or–speculating here–was intentionally removed to bring costs down. I’m suspecting the latter, because you know, Warners can’t be bothered to spend money when it comes to milking Mel Blanc’s corpse.

The very stupid “Speechless Power Picture,” 2000.

In 2000 Warner Bros. teamed up with Animated Animations to produce the Speechless Power Picture, which sold for $195. AA had previously developed a number of products that in the loosest sense of the term could be called “animation art” but were really just expensive toys. They made these cel-shaped window box displays that invited you to push a button (you know, just like on all real artwork) and watch a scene play out. Typically, static cut-outs of the likes of Bugs, Tweety, etc. would have a quick, funny showdown with one of their nemeses, sliding back and forth into view while sound bites from classic cartoons come out of a speaker. Usually some cheapo “special effect” would be utilized: a flash bulb to approximate an explosion, or a blinking LED light to simulate gunfire, etc. But really these were just playthings for people with too much money. They buy it, hang it up in their den, and watch their kids run out of the batteries.

Thinking they had some kind of long-lasting niche going on, AA started developing what they called “Power Pictures,” which were these segmented images whose quadrants would spin around in a pattern to reveal hidden pictures and sound clips. Most of the Power Pictures produced were more pop-cultury in nature–The Simpsons, I Love Lucy, Snoopy, etc.–but someone thought that manufacturing one themed after “Speechless” would tilt things on the more prestigious end.

Parts of the main “Speechless” image (again enhanced with a garish red curtain as a backdrop) would rotate to show a photo of Mel and play a sound bite of him explaining the origin of one of his voices. Noel Blanc was able to provide interview clips and original voice sessions from his vast archive of his father’s outtakes and home recordings–quite an effort for such a cheesy product. The program’s finale would spin all four segments around to reveal an image of Mel surrounded by clip art of his various characters, while a medley of his voices played (including a quick “Beep beep!” from the Road Runner, who was voiced not by Mel but by Paul Julian…good job on research there).

At this point “Speechless” was just becoming a blanket name for any Mel Blanc product. Why couldn’t a Power Picture be made about Mel without having to theme it after the memorial image? Was he only worth celebrating because he was dead? Or was it all just some cold way for Warner Bros. to create a poorly planned product license, kind of like how all of the merchandise for their CW show Supernatural has to be called “Supernatural: Join the Hunt”? “Oh, this is our Mel Blanc merchandise. We call the line ‘Speechless.'”

(And whoring out Mel’s death went beyond mere product strategies. When the Warner Bros. Studio Stores began the process of shutting down following the AOL/Time Warner merger, individual stores were sent a preparations binder outlining what they had to do at certain intervals. The cover of the “store closing” binder was a close-up of the characters in mourning from Speechless. Keep it classy, Time Warner!)

AA promptly went out of business following not only the closure of the Warner Bros. Studio Stores but then also the Disney Store’s decreased focus on selling animation art, which left the company without its two biggest clients. In 2011 AA founder Marc Segan unsuccessfully sued FarmVille developer Zynga over a vague claim of patent infringement concerning an animated web-browsing icon, with Segan ending up being ordered to pay nearly two million dollars in court costs.

When you have such a successful franchise as Speechless–making money off variations of the same image that wouldn’t have existed in the first place if not for someone’s death–it only stood to reason that Warner Bros. would ghoulishly look at their other, aging animation legends in the hope of expanding the line beyond Mel Blanc.

“Friz,” who deserved a better memorial.

Warners unfortunately got their wish with the passing of legendary director Friz Freleng in 1995, and sure enough, tribute products soon followed–almost in a concerningly short amount of time, as if things were already prepared. A rather jubilant, colorful lithograph was offered called Salute to Friz, depicting Yosemite Sam cheerfully riding a horse off into a glorious sunset. Since Sam was modeled after Freleng himself and was said to be the closest to his personality than the other characters, it made for a rather celebratory tribute to the director.

But alas, the tasteful salute was more or less overshadowed by a more mass-market item: “Friz.” Clearly done in the same vein as Speechless, and even marketed to be intended as a companion piece to it, the Looney Tunes cast (almost the exact same lineup as seen in Speechless, minus non-Freleng characters Foghorn Leghorn and Pepe le Pew) is again seen against a white background, this time surrounding an empty animation desk, with Bugs gracefully placing down a carrot. Freleng’s formal full name, Isadore Freleng, is shown with his birth and death years, while the “Speechless”-like caption simply refers to his iconic nickname: “Friz.”

Despite being a thematic cousin to Speechless, the differences between the two pieces are quite stark. The former’s bareness of the characters and single microphone are replaced by the large, rather detailed animation desk. I’m not sure what an appropriate alternative would be, but the desk provides too much clutter for what should otherwise be an empty void. Even the use of the Looney Tunes characters themselves leaves something to be desired. The group shot from Speechless has the gang clustered together, sharing a single, static pose. Their facial expressions aren’t excessively detailed, just closed eyes and the occasional slight frown. In “Friz,” however, almost all of them are in these odd mid-action poses. Bugs is in the middle of setting down his carrot, Sam and Speedy are clutching their respective hats and crouching down, and Daffy is jerking back in grief with an almost comical expression. The static subtlety of the original lithograph is replaced by what looks like a badly timed screen grab from from an actual cartoon. It betrays the depth and gravity of Freleng’s death.

Unlike the open-endedness of Speechless, both Salute to Friz and “Friz” were strictly limited pieces. And thankfully, neither image has subsequently been turned into toys.

Unfortunately(?) for Warner Bros., there weren’t too many remaining living legends of their animation history whose eventual deaths they could immediately capitalize on. At this point Chuck Jones was still alive, and to a lesser (historical) extent so were Arthur Davis, June Foray, and Stan Freberg, but that was about it. Robert McKimson had died back in 1977, Tex Avery followed in 1980, and then Bob Clampett in 1984. The morbidly proverbial well was drying up.

Chuck Jones was in fine health for a man his age at this point, even creating his own “85th birthday” limited edition cel and cranking out a series of other releases through his daughter’s company. I remember a conversation I had with a colleague at Warner Bros. around this time, where we were joking that Jones had created so much of these limited pieces that he likely had already drawn his own “Speechless” image for himself for when the time comes.

“So,” I asked, “is his tribute print going to be thanking himself?”

“Nah,” my friend replied. “His will probably say ‘You’re welcome.'”

It was also around this time that a rumor was circulating that Jones’s company kept a warehouse stockpile of blank cels already signed by Jones to be at the ready for future limited edition pieces. Linda Jones Enterprises emphatically denied this cache of blank cels existing, but strangely a couple of new, signed limited editions nevertheless were released in the years following Jones’s eventual 2002 death, so make your own conclusions.

But anyway, things were looking up a little for Warner Bros. in 1996 with their acquisition of Turner Entertainment, resulting in Warner controlling the Hanna-Barbera library and characters. The company made quick use of Scooby-Doo, marketing the hell out of the character and turning him into an even bigger brand than Bugs and friends. The celebration was short-lived, though, as in 1997 Scooby voice actor Don Messick died following a number of strokes. A legendary voice actor whose characters are now a hot commodity for a massive media conglomerate? Now, you just KNOW what’s going to happen, right?

“Farewell” to Don Messick, who as we all know was famous for saying “farewell” in Shaggy’s voice.

Issued just in time for Christmas of 1997 (how considerate of Don), the Farewell lithograph attempted to follow the same mold set by Speechless and “Friz,” but it’s about as half-assed as it could possibly be. With their backs to the viewer, Shaggy and Scooby are looking off into the distance, with Scooby’s head downcast and Shaggy consoling him. And of course, the obligatory caption, “Farewell,” is present.

That’s it.

Don Messick was with Hanna-Barbera for four decades. In addition to Scooby-Doo, Don ALSO voiced Bam Bam Rubble, Astro, Boo-Boo, Ranger Smith, Dr. Quest, Bandit, Papa Smurf, Muttley, Scrappy-Doo, and countless others. Where were any of these other characters? Did Warner Bros. seriously believe any fan of Hanna-Barbera animation would only know Don for Scooby-Doo?

To add insult to injury is the inclusion of Shaggy, a character that Messick never voiced. Warner’s merchandising and marketing at the time certainly didn’t always depict Scooby and Shaggy together at all times, so it’s not like there was any precedent to suggest that they were joined at the hip. Besides, considering that Don also voiced Scooby’s own nephew, there was no reason for Shaggy to be the one consoling him. Two of Don’s characters mourning together as a family that suffered a major loss would have been meaningful enough.

The capper to the laziness of the piece is the caption: “Farewell.” How very specific and well-thought. I don’t know off the top of my head what would be an appropriate alternative that would have a better connection to Don Messick, but then apparently people being PAID to do just that couldn’t be bothered to come up with one, either. The whole image comes off as an afterthought, likely much as how acquiring Hanna-Barbera as part of the Turner deal was for Time Warner, too.

One would think the 2001 closing of the Warner Bros. Studio Stores would also mean the end to the Speechless line of products. We never did get that Chuck Jones “You’re Welcome” cel (though a rather tasteful, completely original memorial for Jones was placed in the Hollywood trade papers, showing a flurry of his original pencil drawings scattered across his animation desk, with the caption “Drawn to a Close.”). But you can’t keep a good product line (and somewhat gullible consumer base with deep pockets) down. In 2002 Ruth Clampett, Bob’s daughter and former supervisor of Warner’s gallery division, created her own company–Clampett Studio Collections–and struck a deal with Warner Bros. to continue producing gallery-quality pieces of artwork featuring the company’s characters.

Unfortunately, times were changing. Chuck Jones’s company had no interest in dealing with an outside vendor (especially a Clampett), preferring to sell directly to animation galleries themselves (selling through the Warner Bros. Studio Stores was likely a mere courtesy as a part of their licensing agreement), and there was no longer any entity offering Friz Freleng limited edition artwork. The collectable animation art industry was caving in on itself, and online galleries and eBay were quickly making any remaining physical galleries obsolete. This meant Clampett had to hire the services of more anonymous modern day Warner Bros. artists to provide the cel artwork, and images were less reminiscent of iconic Looney Tunes cartoons as they were just mere comical panels featuring the characters. This gave new releases a rather cold, hollow look about them. Whatever flair or uniqueness the Jones and Freleng cels gave the characters was traded in for generic poses seemingly taken direct from a licensing model sheet. The artwork had the same aesthetic as a Looney Tunes t-shirt, and had the same level of desirability among collectors.

The original Speechless lithograph was still being offered through WBShop.com, the rather generic post-Studio Store online site that would become better known as the home to the Warner Archive Collection of DVDs. But oh no, simply reprinting their most popular piece of artwork is never enough for a corporation that was still trying to justify the AOL merger and subsequent closing of their retail operations.

Hence the Speechless Deluxe Edition, issued in November 2005.

The very stupid “Speechless Deluxe Edition” cel, 2005.

Like all redos of the original Speechless, Speechless: Deluxe takes the main character image and strips away all of its depth and solemnity by slapping it in front of a multi-colored background (again a theatrical stage, for some reason). Even Darrel Van Citters’s original artwork of the characters gets sullied, with Sylvester’s closed eyelids now being inexplicably colored white (looking like a pupiless ghost instead of someone in mourning), the white of Pepe’s chest and stomach has been changed to jet black (making him look like he’s on a break from performing in a kabuki puppet show), and gaps between characters are left white and opaque rather than transparent. It’s just a lazy, sloppy translation of a well-crafted, and at this point almost iconic, image.

The original lithograph’s signature inscription has been moved to a brass plaque to be glued onto a frame, while the cel itself has been signed by Noel Blanc. Only a hundred pieces of this monstrosity were produced, with each one priced at $2,595 unframed!

And speaking of Noel, we need to go back in time a small bit to focus on one of the more embarrassing pieces of Speechless-related merchandise, the Passing the Baton lithograph from 2003. Sold as a limited edition of 500 pieces for $495, press releases announce that the new art “celebrates the life of world-renowned character voice artist Mel Blanc and his son Noel.”

Um, why?

The very stupid “Passing the Baton,” 2003.

Look, I’ve met Noel. He’s a nice, funny, down-to-earth guy, but as far as any kind of animation career goes, what is there to celebrate? His actual vocal contributions to the Looney Tunes characters following his dad’s death were minuscule–mainly just filling in a very small void before Jeff Bergman was hired in the fall of 1989. Noel has in actuality done wonders in preserving Mel’s legacy and making hundreds of hours of recordings available for commercial use–at times even developing software to adapt and customize Mel’s voices to fit specific product needs (perhaps most famously by creating a singing clip for a “Macarena Tweety” plush doll). Keeping his dad’s legacy alive and relevant is important, of course, but do we really need to celebrate that?

Passing the Baton was in fact marketed not as merely a “salute” to Noel Blanc but in fact as an actual companion piece (they literally used that phrase in marketing the litho) to Speechless, hoping those morbid collectors out there would display them on their walls side by side.

The image features all of the characters from the original “Speechless” plus the addition of the Tasmanian Devil, who was just starting to become a major licensing character at the time of Mel’s death but likely then still wasn’t seen as popular or mainstream enough to depict in the original memorial…but hey, it’s 2003 and we gotta slap on a hot merchandising character to drive sales (surprised Marvin the Martian wasn’t added, too). Anyway, the gang is all decked out in tuxedos and joyfully playing various instruments as if in an orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl. Behind them is a large black and white photograph of Mel and Noel as a child, with the younger Blanc “conducting” the music with a baton. GET IT?!?

According to the original press release for Passing the Baton, “Clampett Studio Collection…has done it again.” Ugh, yes, they have, and it’s despicable.

Whether or not Mel actually intended Noel to carry on his voices is kinda irrelevant. The fact remains is that Noel didn’t, and a product like this feeds into that general public ignorance that he did. It’s the same lazy phony knowledge that make people think Brian Henson ever performed Kermit the Frog after Jim died (a “fact” that I swear was actually repeated by a reporter in a newspaper interview with Noel). I’ve complained before about how newspaper comic strips for whatever reason get passed onto children whenever a creator dies (and I’ve yet to hear an actual believable reason as to why), and I in a way blame that trend for this mass stupidity when it comes to newer voice artists taking over classic roles. I mean, we don’t really think Alec Guinness’s son played young Obi-Wan in the Star Wars prequels, do we?

So after toys, figurines, plates, deluxe cels, spin-offs, and sequels, what is there left to mine from Speechless to “salute”? Well, in 2008 the always reliable Clampett Studio Collections came through by creating a new version of Speechless that saluted Speechless itself!

2008’s “Timeless…,” the very stupid tribute to “Speechless.”

Titled Timeless… and timed around what would have been Mel’s 100th birthday, it was a newly created cel limited to only one hundred editions, with each piece priced at $1,375 framed. Yikes! Eschewing any kind of pretense as to its intentions, the cel’s certificate of authenticity actually explicitly calls it a “sequel tribute.” Hey, animation collectors! Plunk down nearly $1,400 for a sequel!

Timeless… tries to recall the original emotions that Speechless brought, even enlisting Darrel Van Citters to design the new image. But instead of the Looney Tunes gang being mournful and solemn, this new artwork was (I guess) meant to be the inverse and instead be a celebration of life, a jubilant acknowledgement of Mel’s career. A concept like that could actually work, but why even tie it to the original Speechless piece? Why use the same cluster of characters? What would have been wrong with, say, an energetic piece with all of Mel’s Warner-owned characters (Hanna-Barbera guys included) bursting from the glow of a central microphone? Or even, daresay, make the extra effort to also license the images of other Blanc characters like Heathcliff, Twiki from Buck Rogers, or even something out there like the Frito Bandito or Go Go Gomez from Dick Tracy? Call it “The Man of a Thousand Voices” and avoid putting birth and death years on it; just let Mel’s body of work speak for itself for once. I have a feeling such a piece would sell in considerable numbers and would appeal to collectors who maybe have felt the last two decades of derivative products have been too ghoulish.

But no, Timeless… doesn’t take any risks but wants the same reward. This time, the characters aren’t so much just honoring Mel Blanc as they are also perversely commemorating the release of the original Speechless lithograph. A facsimile of the print is depicted on the outside of the theater the way one would see a movie poster for an upcoming release. The rest of the image has generic trappings of a “Hollywood movie premiere” setting, including a drawing of Mel’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a parody of the iconic Hollywood sign reading “ACMEWOOD.” And of course, not only Van Citters but also Ruth Clampett had to sign the cel saluting Mel Blanc. Lame.

Like every other piece of Speechless-related merchandise, one begs to question who the intended audience is or what purpose is it meant to serve. The original Speechless is still being printed and is readily available to purchase at this point, so why would one need to purchase an item that is simply recalling a better, and more meaningful, piece of art? Especially one that was initially a memorial piece to begin with? I don’t even know if the word “morbid” is appropriate here. This lithograph is a celebration of morbid commercialism.

So as we are now at the thirty-year mark of Mel’s passing, I have to wonder if we’re simply past the point of no return. Are we just going to keep seeing regurgitations of the “Speechless” imagery and sentiment courtesy of whichever third party “art” vendor holds the Looney Tunes license at any given moment? Will we soon see a holographic version of Speechless? Or a laser-cut crystal version? Or a talking music box? Or are we just a Comic Con away from seeing a Funko Pop version of Speechless?

And this just goes back to what I asked earlier. With all of his work and creations at their disposal, why is Warner Bros. so intent on just focusing on Mel Blanc’s death? Apart from DVD releases of the actual cartoons (which themselves are few and far between lately), what are they doing to celebrate his actual talent? Individual people working on Looney Tunes productions have made attempts–from Mel’s Jack Benny Show Maxwell sound effects turning up in Looney Tunes: Back in Action to his vintage Capitol Records songs being used for recent CGI cartoons–but what exactly has the Warner Bros. company done apart from constantly reminding us that he’s dead? There was a long life before that death, you know. Over eighty years. I still think that’s a pretty long amount of time.

Mel’s own tombstone famously says, “That’s all, folks!” I really wish that was the case.

EDIT – ADDITION ON 7/11!
As I had hoped, I found the picture of me and Dave Coulier, taken at the Cleveland Comedy Club before his set…during a blizzard.

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“Oh god, that’s terrible!”

I know I risk turning in all of my cool-person cards–and I have so many–but I need to disclose something to all four of you. It’s not something I’m ashamed of at all, but when I do mention it to another person I tend to get odd looks and follow-up questions.

I don’t drink coffee.

I never had a desire to do so. I simply don’t like the taste of it. I don’t care what’s done to it: blend it, ice it, steam it, sweeten it, top it with some kind of whipped goo, whatever. I just don’t like coffee, and the closest I will come to that sludge is a jamocha shake at Arby’s.

When it comes to caffeine, I tend to lean toward what we call around these parts “pop” but what’s also known as “soda,” “Cokes,” “tonic”…uh, let’s say also “swamp water,” and, um, “gloopy-gloop,” depending on the part of the country you live in–because evidently we have such a hard-on for making English our official language that we can’t even decide on the same words for certain common items. If I’m lucky I will sometimes also partake in a cup of tea, which is all the more easier now that I’m married to a tea connoisseur, but pop is usually my default soft drink of choice…and since I don’t drink alcohol anyway, let’s just say it’s my default drink, period.

I can’t say that I’m a big follower of pop news, but when something pretty cool comes along it tends to fascinate me. Several years ago, Coca-Cola unveiled this…I don’t know exactly how to put it…this, thing. It is one such pretty cool thing; some would say downright awesome. It’s perhaps one of the most ingenious innovations the soft drink industry has ever stumbled upon.

Coke unveiled the Coca-Cola Freestyle.

Coke FreestyleWhat is the Coca-Cola Freestyle, you ask? Well, you may know it as “that cool Coke thing,” but in its most simplistic essence, it’s a soda fountain, much like the ones you would find inside any fast food establishment that allows one to dispense their own drinkage into their own paper drinkage cuppage. Typically those work by you–as the mindless consumer devoid of any power and control–delicately placing your empty, and usually hideously decorated, paper cup under one of as many as six or seven pop options and then filling your cup, either via a button or latch or whatever. Your choice is usually limited in large part because the company and/or franchise owner running said restaurant is bottomlessly unimaginative (seriously, apart from White Castle, who else is going to offer red cream soda in their fountain?) but also because “shelf space,” so to speak, is so limited and there are only x number of selections that can be offered; and too many of which are considered essential for a soda fountain. If we’re dealing with Coke products you will always find Coke Classic, Diet Coke, and Sprite. The other few remaining slots probably normally go to brands such as Barq’s Root Beer, the vile Country Time Lemonade, maybe a Hi-C flavor, and usually Dr Pepper even though Coke doesn’t own the property and in most parts of the country doesn’t even bottle it. If you’re lucky, on the side of the machine you can sometimes also find a button in order to just dispense plain old water, because doesn’t that just hit the spot when you’re consuming salty, fatty fast food?

But the Coca-Cola Freestyle is a different animal altogether. Looking like a cross between an old school “drop cup and fill” vending machine and the Suicide Booth from Futurama, it’s all operated on a touchscreen. The machine greets you with a welcome screen displaying all the known Coca-Cola Company brands, including some that they don’t even offer at the grocery store. Old standbys such as Coca-Cola Classic, Sprite, and Coke Zero are there, sure, but so are Pibb Xtra, Fanta, and even Mellow Yellow Zero (don’t worry, it still tastes just like fermented sewer water). Once you make your brand selection you’re taken to a new screen where you get to pick your flavor of said beverage! With typically six to eight different additional flavors available for each drink, the possibilities increase tenfold. Just plain old Diet Coke too boring for you? Then how about Diet Coke Raspberry? Pibb Xtra Zero too Diet Dr Peppery for you? Then try Cherry Vanilla Pibb Xtra Zero!

The whole machine operates like a computer printer, where the various syrup flavors and base pop flavors are contained in individual cartridges like toner. When you make some crazy combination of soda and flavor the machine will mix the various elements in a certain ratio, just like when you need to print out something with a variety of different colors. You’re essentially drinking #F4A460! Taste that cyan!

I like the Freestyle for a couple of reasons. One, it’s amusing to see which obscure brand names Coke still believes can be relevant in 2015, such as Mr. Pibb and Mellow Yellow (I wouldn’t be surprised if certain Freestyle machines also offered Tab and Fresca). But also, as any of my Twitter or Faccibukke friends know, I’m a staunch opponent of high fructose corn syrup, the vile synthetic non-sugar goo that’s found in most regular pop brands because it’s cheaper than using actual sugar (maybe it wouldn’t be if corn farmers didn’t receive huge, unnecessary government subsidies and tax breaks?). Traditional pop fountains don’t usually offer any diet flavors beyond the respective brand’s signature diet cola–to say nothing of sit-down restaurants where the servers’ eyes cross in confusion if you should ask if they serve anything diet besides Coke or Pepsi, as if “diet” is a singular flavor in of itself. So it’s comforting to be able to choose from more than just ONE diet pop, be it Diet Barq’s or Sprite Zero or Pibb Xtra Zero or whatever. And hey, if I do want to add a goofy flavor to it once in a while, it’s only going to add a calorie or two and a trivial amount of sweetener. It makes the diet-pop drinker feel like they’re not just being relegated to that restaurant ghetto set up to appease people from Weight Watchers.

I did such an experiment the last time the family and I went out to a local Five Guys, we went with the entire family, we even took our baby with his new stroller we got from the babystroller-reviews. I wanted to try something truly bizarre, something that I doubt I would ever see on a grocery store shelf (in this country, anyway). I decided adding a unique fruit flavor to normal plain old Diet Coke would be fun to try–hey, after all, I buy Diet Coke Lime for home from time to time (I’m drinking a can of it now as I type this). So I pressed the “Diet Coke Orange” button. I doubt I was the first to do so, and I doubt I will be the last…but I will say that if anyone ever orders that again, it certainly won’t be me.

“Oh god, that’s terrible!” was the utterance heard around the table. I’m not quite sure I could accurately describe the strange mix of bitterness and gooey sweetness that hit my tongue. If I had to approximate it, I would try to put it in the same category as that taste you get when you drink orange juice after brushing your teeth. It was nasty; I imagine it was on the same “ick” scale as repulsive-sounding crap like bacon-flavored vodka. But I had to finish the cup. I was committed to seeing it through to the end. I chalk it up as a horrible attempt, but that’s all a part of the fun of the Coca-Cola Freestyle.

And while we’re on the subject, can I just really quickly ask that we as a society drop this infantile fixation on bacon? Despite what a shirt at Hot Topic may suggest, you’re not a “hipster” for wanting to make fatty strips of pork a part of every meal; that’s called a “slob.” And don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against bacon as a breakfast meat per se, but we’ve really got to stop celebrating obesity and the things that cause it. It’s unhealthy for us on a psychological level. We need to stop treating competitive eating as a sport worthy of ESPN coverage and making a celebrity out of that Man vs. Food asshole. Wait no, scratch all that; let’s keep that up. Let’s encourage these idiots to keep doing what they’re doing, because you know what kind of people eat bacon at every meal? Dead people! Let’s see if they can purge themselves from our culture. I’m glad they’re now finding cancer links.

But anyway, what’s really, really funny about the Freestyle is its secret corporate ulterior motive. You didn’t really think the Coca-Cola Company was doing something this innovative out of the goodness of their hearts, did you? They didn’t concoct it after some vague, soda-based “I have a dream” ideal. No no, the true purpose of the Coca-Cola Freestyle is to provide that most treasured of corporate assets: consumer market research data.

You see, the Coca-Cola Freestyle records every iteration of every pop that’s ordered on it, saving and filing it the way a survey keeps track of demographic data. Periodically Coke downloads the information to see what everyone’s been ordering, compiling a sort of internal Billboard chart of their products. Obviously, the more known products such as Coke Classic, Sprite, etc. are going to be among the most ordered, but the company takes a bigger interest in the various flavored mixtures that are concocted. Coke uses this information to see what kinds of new brands and new flavors might be worth their while to either test-market or introduce on a national scale.

It’s a savvy, sneaky way of developing new product and doing field research without investing a dime (apart from manufacturing the machines, of course). And isn’t that what current America’s all about anyway, having someone else do all the hard work and take all the risk without making any personal investment yourself? How else does a concept like Kickstarter become popular? “I want to make a movie by myself but not sink a single penny of my own money into it, so I’ll beg people to Paypal me their money and I’ll promise to send them a script page or something stupid.” Let’s face it, Coke isn’t letting these people play on the Freestyles for free; you’re still buying a soft drink from them and their restaurant partners. Coke loses nothing in selling someone Mellow Yellow Zero Raspberry. They exert no energy finding out if people like it or not. Everyone in this country wants to be Huckleberry Finn, even though most of them have probably never read the book. It’s too much work.

But as far as lazy research and development goes, the Coca-Cola Freestyle is a work of genius, but it also might be the company’s undoing; its Achilles Heel Zero, if you will.

Imagine this hypothetical situation….

Let’s say, to name a rival company, Pepsi wanted to cripple Coca-Cola and cause it to waste millions of dollars in product development, market research, manufacturing, distribution, marketing, etc. Yeah, yeah, I know, it sounds crazy, but Coke has pretty much set it up to allow such a thing to happen.

The first thing Pepsi would need to do is locate all the known Freestyle machines in the country, a lengthy but not impossible task (Coke even provides a web site just for that purpose). Once such locations are mapped out, Pepsi could easily coordinate with its various local bottlers to recruit and/or hire a group of part-time workers or interns for each city. Local “street teams” are nothing new; in fact, with viral marketing and social media they are in fact a bit on the way out…and if there’s any one entity to fully utilize a marketing gimmick that’s quickly becoming irrelevant, it’s corporate America.

So each street team sets up a schedule to determine when each member will hit each Freestyle on which day and time. Meanwhile, Pepsi picks one, and only one, completely revolting Coke flavor–for the sake of argument, let’s just say Diet Coke Orange.

It is now up to each member of the local street teams to go to their nearest Coca-Cola Freestyle and do nothing but fill their cups with Diet Coke Orange, with a new person on the team hitting the Freestyle every day. Pepsi pays for their drink, their expenses, and their time. What American would not want to get paid for simply driving to a fast food joint and buy pop? They don’t even need to drink it; just purchase it and select the flavor on the screen.

You now have a whole country of pop consumers willingly and knowingly selecting Diet Coke Orange out of their local Freestyle machine. Coca-Cola has no choice but to see these sales figures and think, “Well, this must be what Americans want now!” Nobody can predict what the next big “flavor” is going to be. Remember when mango was popular for about three months? Pomegrante? Kiwi? We’re already seeing such a demand for orange, such as its baffling inclusion in Listerine and Crest products (whatever happened to avoiding the taste of orange while brushing your teeth?). A sudden, supposed grassroots surge in popularity for a Diet Coke Orange drink isn’t too farfetched.

But the reality is that it does truly suck, but Coke is just listening to their supposed consumer base, regardless if it made sense to them. After all, they thought everyone was going to go gaga over New Coke before public demand forced them to think otherwise. And if anyone who has ever visited the Coke-sponsored exhibit at EPCOT can tell you, the company isn’t necessarily against offering oddball flavors internationally.

So Coke spends billions of dollars to roll out Diet Coke Orange, a product that they are convinced the public will love…because that is what the public has already told them (supposedly). A huge ad campaign is plotted, commercials starring Bruce Willis are shot and sent to movie theaters to show before the trailers, there is some big Super Bowl tie-in sweepstakes, and pretty much every American consumer is made aware of this awesomely big new product that is on the horizon.

And it bombs big time.

And I don’t mean it simply underperforms. I’m talking New Coke failure…Crystal Pepsi failure…Josta failure…Henry Cavill Man from U.N.C.L.E. failure. It becomes one of the biggest corporate misfires in American history. Coke loses credibility and faces the worst quarter in its existence, while Pepsi not only thrives but also delivers the final sting by offering a new ad slogan for Diet Pepsi like “Why fool around with perfection?”

To the average American it will seem like a colossal error in judgement, when in actuality everything will have gone according to plan…for Pepsi.

You see, Pepsi at least understands how dangerous it is to put the fate of insane-sounding pop flavors solely in the hands of the public. In 1991 the company introduced a bizarre trio of fruit-flavored Pepsi colas in very limited release, literally just over the course of the summer…and in self-contained multi-packs, yet. It was probably the only time Pepsi test-marketed a product as deep into the wilderness as Northeast Ohio. The flavors were Pepsi Raging Razzberry, Pepsi Strawberry Burst, and Pepsi Tropical Chill. They were definitely a mixed bag. One or two of the flavors were, if memory serves, delightfully sweet. The other one, maybe the raspberry one, was forgettable but never as vile as the aforementioned Diet Coke Orange. Pepsi didn’t need a super-computer novelty toy to research and market these three new sodas. They simply quietly brought it out and, when it was clear that nobody was begging for more, quietly took it away. If Pepsi was to unveil their own version of the Freestyle, god knows what nasty-sounding, nasty-tasting Mountain Dew variation would catch on among teenage mall douchebags.

And that’s what’s so simultaneously awesome and hilarious about the Coca-Cola Freestyle: it blindly trusts us to make the right decisions that could potentially affect the whims of a major corporation. The fools! We’re idiots. We can’t distinguish quality on our own. We follow dumb trends and go see bad movies and listen to lousy music. We make Avatar and Titanic the two highest grossing movies of all time. We let a major recording artist get away with beating the shit out of his girlfriend, who just happens to be another major recording artist.We let some creepy home-schooled religious zealot molest his sisters just because he stars on a reality show. We let a president get away with lying us into a war, and a vice president with shooting someone in the face. We have a rich billionaire fuck convince poor people that being provided with government-guaranteed affordable health care is a bad thing that they should be ashamed of enjoying. We are a nation of intellectual and cultural lemmings, and our deluded perception of choices vary from what we’re used to and “Oh god, that’s terrible!”

I also bring all this up now because supposedly certain Freestyle machines are now offering seasonally themed flavors of its products, including gingerbread. I honestly can’t imagine something like, say, Gingerbread Fanta Zero being popular anywhere in the world.

Well okay, maybe Japan.

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