24 Sep
2017

Happy Birthday, Jim Henson

A totally not creepy painting of Jim with his two greatest creations, Ernesto and Kermesto

The guy who voiced Kermit the Frog was fired in October of 2016.  Steve Whitmire had taken over voicing the famous frog after Jim Henson died unexpectedly in 1990.  Many who worked with Whitmire on Muppets-related projects said this isn't necessarily a bad thing, and that the voice actor and puppeteer was difficult to work with.  The drama unfolding behind the scenes doesn't actually have anything to do with the public at large, but take a look at this. 5:05.  That's when Jim Henson's version of Kermit the Frog ended and Steve Whitmire's began.  And it's...odd:

Sure, the Muppets are much too great a franchise to let go of, and Kermit is not a character that belongs to Henson exclusively.  He's a public figure, and he belongs to his fans just as much as he belongs to his creator.  But there is something off about Whitmire's performance.  It's hard to put into words, but I'm not alone.

To be clear, Whitmire's version of Kermit wasn't terrible.  But it wasn't great either.  He did the best job that he could, but it's not unusual to wonder what the Muppets and other Henson productions could have been if Jim had lived longer.

Jim Henson was born in Greenville, Mississippi.  He spent his early years in Leland, MS, before moving with his family to University Park, MD, when he was about 12.  When he was in high school, he was creating puppets for a Saturday morning children's show called The Junior Morning Show.  He took a puppetry class in college while attending University of Maryland, College Park, where he graduated with a BS in home economics in 1960.  While a freshman, he created the show Sam and Friends.  The puppets in the show were forerunners of the Muppets, and included a prototype of Kermit the Frog.  (Familiar territory)

Very familiar.

Henson also came up with techniques to allow for greater control and expression over his puppets. He made his puppets out of foam rubber instead of wood.  He used rods to control their arms.  He used an awareness of a camera's frame to allow performers to manipulate their puppets off-camera. In other words, Henson transformed the art of puppeteering.  He was an innovator.  Henson not only created the Muppets, but actually coined the term "muppet," a portmanteau of "marionette" and "puppet."

Jim Henson's accomplishments are too many to list, but here goes!  He and his wife at the time, Jane, created the Muppets and Sesame Street.  He helped work on the Star Wars franchise, masterminding the design and look of Jedi master Yoda (the Henson group subsequently helped create and puppeteer Jabba the Hutt and other incidental alien characters).  He co-directed and co-wrote the excellent fantasy films The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, along with Frank Oz.  In fact, if you see a large budget movie that features puppets, chances are better than not that either Jim Henson or the Jim Henson Muppet Group had something to do with it.  This, along with countless Muppets and Sesame Street movies, television specials, and many other projects, has made Jim Henson a gargantuan cultural influence. Oddly enough, most people don't know what he looks like.

This is Jim Henson!

My first blog post for Kards Unlimited was for Kermit the Frog, which is interesting because in a way I was actually writing about Jim Henson.  The creation and rise of Kermit and the Muppets goes hand in hand with Jim Henson's success in the entertainment industry.  They don't just share an arc, they are pretty much the same entity.  Jim Henson has said that Kermit is just an extension of himself, one that could say the things he was too shy to say.

On May 16, 1990, Jim Henson died of pneumonia.  Many people blame his Christian Science upbringing for not going to the hospital, but according to my source (Wikipedia), he simply didn't want to bother anybody.

Oh, sure.  Of course.  I mean you're only Jim Henson, why would it be important for you to stay alive?  Ugh!  Oh well!  Hope Valhalla's nice!

Oh, and happy birthday, Jim!

14 Sep
2017

A Sexy Geek? Yes, Please.

September is Shameless Self-Promotion Month! This is perfect since we at Kards Unlimited LOVE to talk about ourselves. Like, a lot. We thought you might want to get to know the KU employees a bit, so here's JD's fantastically shameless promotion of himself. We love him. You should, too!

***

How many of you out there are single? You may have been struggling within the dating world lately and worrying where you're headed (or not headed). Let's face it, there never seems to be great options, do there? Or the fantastic options you do find are completely blocked due to them having ended a relationship. From the guys who don't talk enough, to the ones who never stop, and all the ones in-between, I'm the solution for you...buddy.

Ever think that "I'd love to find a man who was as caring as all of the guys I see in these romance flicks?" A man who would give you a massage, take your dog for a walk, or cook for you. Or remember all the things you love and don't? Just in order to make your life happy? How would you feel if a guy randomly got you a book by your favorite author? Done and Done...puppy.

About to cook with some homegrown jalapenos.

Do you ever think "I'd like it if I could meet a guy who I could participate in, as well as attend, sporting events with?" Would you like to have a gym buddy? If you're someone who plays in any leagues and you'd like a man in your life whom you can cheer on, and vice versa, look no further...bro.

With my kickball team, after our first win.

Have you ever thought "I'd like to have a date for all of the events I enjoy?" Are you interested in finding the perfect guy who's into the same intellectual pursuits as you? Do you need a date for the new gallery opening or the French Film Festival? Someone to attend the Tori Amos concert, go to a Neil Gaiman book signing, or try the new exotic restaurant with? Je suis l'art...mister.

One, in a line of, artistic shots I took for Instagram.

Have you been wondering "Where can I find the perfect companion to travel the world?", but come up short? Have you got a long list of travel destinations but somehow they'd all seem pointless without that special someone there beside you to awe at them with? Your wanderlust is shared...papi.

On a zoo trip with a good buddy.

If what you're thinking is "I want to go out...do something fun and simple,"  then that's easily accomplished. Do you want to grab burgers and drinks? Taco Tuesday? Do you want to put on jeans and a t-shirt and go dancing all night at a club with someone? See a drag show or do karaoke? I can make that all happen...kiddo.

At a costume party for Halloween.

Do you simply say to yourself "I want a guy who understands me?" Do you want a guy who knows who you are and wants you for that? Looking for a guy who would love to cuddle and watch a film, or listen to some amazing tunes with you any time of day or night of the week? Don't feel like going out even though you've already made plans with people? I gotchu...babe.

At home, being lazy.

Basically, if any of this is what you're looking for, I'd make a fantastic boyfriend for you. I'm cute, intelligent, kind, giving, thoughtful, understanding, and loving. *blushes* I can also be shy, quiet, and generally only talk myself up when pushed.  Regardless, I'm a sexy geek and I'm the guy for you!

Geeky fun at work.

9 Sep
2017

Wonderful Weirdos

Since I've started blogging for Kards Unlimited, I've written about plenty of weirdos, from Franz Kafka to Hunter S. Thompson to Steve Martin.  Indeed, probably the least weird public figure I've written about would be Kermit the Frog, an entertainment juggernaut made of green felt who carried on a romantic relationship with a pig (yup, carried.  Past tense.  They broke up).  It's fair to say that I am someone who admires weirdos.  And the weirder the public figure, the deeper my interest in them.

There are plenty of celebrities who would qualify as weirdos: Lady Gaga, Donald Glover, Tom Cruise, Gary Busey, Dennis Rodman (remember you guys?  HE WORE A WEDDING DRESS!!!! HIS HAIR WAS DYED GREEN!!!!! WHAAAAT?!?!?!?!?!?!?).  However, some wonderful weirdos stand out from the rest for their influence in society and extra dose of weirdness. So here's a few public figures who are important, influential, and most importantly, weird and wonderful.

There's probably another name in there that I'm missing

Prince, or, The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, or, that weird androgynous symbol thing, or, Prince...again

Where to start? Well his music, as incredible as it is, is undoubtedly strange.  He made a point of mixing together of-the-moment pop sounds and catchy melodies with experimental textures that would make Lou Reed jealous.  He's also one of the few '80s pop icons that could seriously shred on guitar.  And then there's his enigmatic personality.  He changed his stage name four times.  His relationship with the internet when he was alive was tenuous at best and volatile at its worst, which might be why it was so hard to find any of his original songs or videos until recently.  Actually, if you want a good sense of Prince's quirky personality, Kevin Smith (another weirdo who I've written about on this site) has an excellent story about a documentary he was supposed to film about the music star.  (Here's the condensed version.  The editing is pretty stark, so if you can find the full version I would recommend watching that instead.)

I was actually supposed to write about Prince for one of my first blog posts for this site, but missed the deadline, so it's nice to kick off this list with a truly great, strange person.  At least I think he was a person.  Maybe an alien or some sort of trick of light and smoke.  A mass hallucination, perhaps.

Georgia O'Keeffe

Georgia O'Keeffe is a perfect fit for a weird and wonderful blog.  She's just...excellent.  At a very young age, O'Keeffe was an impressive painter.  In her twenties, she could easily replicate the styles of many famous artists.  Doing so, however, bored her (a good way to describe many weirdos could be "perpetually bored").  After spending a summer in New Mexico, she wasn't content to just replicate objects and scenic landscapes with her paintings.  Following the teachings of Arthur Dow, she instead painted natural scenes with an abstract edge.  A few of my favorites:

Yes.  The skull is my favorite.  Her early work with charcoal is also quite impressive:

It's hard enough to be strange in 2017.  So in 1910, it must've been close to impossible.  To quote O'Keefe herself: "I wonder if I'm a raving lunatic for trying to make these things."

Eh, maybe.  But thank god she made them.

David Lynch

Is Eraserhead from 1990?  No?  Late '80s?  Early '80s? No? Ok, so it's from 1977, but it has to be a foreign film, right?  It's American?  Ok, put a pin in that.

Ok, so who does the ear belong to?  What is that...laughing gas?  Why isn't he laughing?  What is he doing?  Oh my god...Put a pin in that, as well, I guess. (Also, Laura Dern!)

It's a murder mystery, right?  No?  Well, ok, so it explores the dark secrets of the residents of a small town.  What do you mean "not exactly?"  A doorknob?  Ugh...pin.

So, wait, it was all in her head?  And what were all those other scenes?  Ok, just...put a pin in that, too.

...what?

So yeah.  David "More Questions Than Answers" Lynch.  You'd be hard put to find an active director more original and bizarre.

Before I wrap this up, I want to quickly mention a lesser-known wonderful weirdo.

Yayoi Kusama

I'm not going to write Yayoi Kusama's biography.  Suffice it to say that she is a Japanese artist who has been active since moving to New York in 1957 (although she started making art at the age of 10).  Here are a few pictures of her work:

And my favorite for last:

If you would like to know more about her, I've heard that people use a website called Google to look up things that interest them.  If you live in the Pittsburgh area, you can see a few of her installations at The Mattress Factory in the North Side.

Now, let's wrap things up correctly:

Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, Thin White Duke, Heathen, Hero, Goblin King, Blackstar, David "What The Hell Man You're Never Allowed To Die We Need You Now More Than Ever ALMOST TWO YEARS LATER AND THIS STILL REALLY HURTS" Bowie

For a very different reason than with Yayoi Kusama, I'm not going to take a crack at summing up David Bowie's life in this post.  I'm not one to indulge people who were born and raised under rocks.  Again, Google is very popular.

What I will say is that David Bowie was a man who seemed to be a wonderful weirdo almost by default. He made being weird seem wonderful. And he wouldn't have had it any other way.  When he wasn't inventing genres whole-cloth he was taking established genres and making them incredibly strange and experimental.  He was, and continues to be, a gargantuan influence in the world of music and art.

Bowie only had two late career releases.  The Next Day was a very pretty outing with one song in particular, "Where Are We Now?", that I liked very much.

I heard Dave Grohl say in an interview after hearing the song something along the lines of "the song is so sad.  I remember thinking 'man...is he dying or something'."

Well, he was.

David Bowie blew our minds one last time by releasing an album detailing his own demise.  Blackstar is an out-of-this-world experimental jazz/rock/morbid-as-hell release that almost proves that Bowie was more than just a man or even an alien.  He was more a deity, shining a light through the darkness of status quo mediocrity and artistic compromise.  He told the truth.  Even as cancer was ravaging his body and death was months away from extinguishing his flame.

So I will leave you with a video that can only be described as...I dunno.  Strange and marvelous, I guess.

1 Sep
2017

September 2017 Events and Birthdays

WHAT UP SEPTEMBER?! We don't know who let summer end so soon but that's okay. We'll recover just in time for all of the great things to celebrate this month! Like Pleasure Your Mate Month, Eat an Extra Dessert Day, Wonderful Weirdos Day, TOLKIEN WEEK, and Celebrate Bisexuality Day (to name a few!) Read on to see all of the amazing things we're jumping into leaf piles for!  Read more >>

15 Aug
2017

Wish This Jerk a Happy Birthday

Read these jokes aloud:

  • "Don't have sex, men. It leads to kissing and pretty soon you have to start talking to them."
  • "I believe that sex is one of the most beautiful, natural, wholesome things that money can buy."
  • "I believe you should place a woman on a pedestal - high enough so you can look up her dress."

What do you think?  Funny? Not so funny? Corny? Sexist? Read them again in Steve Martin's voice.

They become funny again; at least I think so.  And it's not just these jokes.  Indeed, the bulk of Steve Martin's material is composed of unfunny jokes.  They are corny.  Like unfunny-uncle-corny.  You know which uncle I'm talking about.

I can actually hear your eyes rolling

These jokes aren't the exception.  They are the rule. Watch any of his stand-up specials and you'll find these terrible jokes all throughout.

When I was a kid, plenty of people talked about what a genius Steve Martin was.  Even at 11-years-old, I considered myself pretty savvy when it came to stand-up.  My brother introduced me to George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks (by way of Denis Leary), and many others.  Comedically speaking, I was quite adept.  Steve Martin, however, vexed me.  Why is he wearing an arrow through his head?  Why are his jokes bad?  And most importantly, why is everyone falling over laughing at this (my family included)?

When I watched The Jerk, a brilliant anti-comedy starring Steve Martin as Navin Johnson, a white man who was adopted by an African-American family, it all came together.  Martin's jokes aren't meant to be funny.  He's a jackass.  His character is a dumb person who believes himself to be the smartest guy in the room. So when he's on stage, he's actually playing the role of an entertainer who is mediocre but believes himself to be quite good.  If you think the jokes above are sexist and unfunny, it's Martin saying 'most stand-up comedians are sexist and unfunny.'

His stand-up isn't as simple as "get up on stage and tell unfunny jokes ironically," though.  His show is wonderfully deconstructionist.  The pacing is manic.  He works with props briefly.  His rhythm is completely different than anyone else who came before him, ditching the traditional formula of 'set-up/punchline' for sporadic, random bits that tricked the audience into laughing.  Or, to quote the man himself:

"What if there were no punch lines? What if there were no indicators? What if I created tension and never released it? What if I headed for a climax, but all I delivered was an anticlimax? What would the audience do with all that tension?"

If anyone else did this, they would look really foolish.

This is from his autobiography, Born Standing Up.  If you want a thorough account of Martin's life, I would recommend reading it.  If you don't have time, however, here's a short, not-so-thorough version:

Steve Martin was born August 14, 1945, in Waco, Texas, and raised in Inglewood, California. He is the son of Mary Lee and Glenn Vernon Martin.  After attending Garden Grove High School, he went on to study drama and English poetry while attending Santa Ana College.  His comedy career began when he landed a writing job on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, where he and his fellow writers ended up winning an Emmy.  He went on to write for The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour and The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour.  On top of his many stand-up specials, Martin has acted in many movies, including The Jerk (which he also co-wrote); The Man With Two Brains; Three Amigos; Planes, Trains, and Automobiles; and, most recently, It's Complicated. Martin is also an accomplished author, including his aforementioned autobiography, Born Standing Up and his novels Shopgirl, The Pleasure of My Company, and An Object Of Beauty (available at Kards Unlimited!).

The list of Steve Martin's accomplishments goes on and on.  I literally don't have the time to write about it all.  He plays the banjo, he performs magic, he wrote a play.  He's prolific, to say the least. And he is undoubtedly intelligent.

Genius at work

His apparent intelligence is what made me not give up on Steve Martin; what made me dig deeper and drove me to understand his comedy style.  On its surface, the material is really shallow and stupid.  If you read the jokes above in, say, Andrew Dice Clay's voice, they fall flat and come off as disgusting and misogynistic.  Through the filter of Steve Martin's thick sarcasm and satirical persona, however, it becomes a biting commentary on mediocrity in the entertainment business.  I had to put in the work and it paid off.

Happy birthday, Steve Martin, you wild and crazy guy!

8 Aug
2017

An Icon Passes: Remembering Romero

"They're coming to get you, Barbra." These words will forever echo in the minds of horror movie fans around the world.

These famous lines, which sparked an entire genre of horror, were written by none other than George A. Romero, legendary director, writer, editor, and creator of the modern day zombie monster. A native New Yorker, Romero came to Pittsburgh to attend Carnegie Mellon University. Sadly, he passed away from lung cancer July 16th at the ripe age of 77.

I love zombie movies. To me, they are the most terrifying monsters. Whether they're Romero's slow moving, dim-witted flesh eaters, or fast and tactical like in 28 Days Later, just the thought of an undead army whose only intention is to eat your brains sends shivers down my appetizing spine.

My fascination with the zombie world started at a young age. My brother showed me Night of the Living Dead when I was around ten years old. It scared me to death, but it opened me up to the world of horror, and for that, I am forever indebted to Romero. 

Night of the Living Dead was released in 1968 with a budget of $114,000. Since then it has grossed more than $30 million and has become a staple of any horror buff's collection. The movie was shot locally in Monroeville, PA, putting the little town on the map.

Romero may have not known how important this film would be, but he managed to do two things: create the modern zombie, and use the film as a platform to hold a mirror to American society. Romero was a master at social commentary. To have an African-American protagonist, and to have the protagonist be the hero, only to be shot dead by police officers at the end, in 1968, was groundbreaking. Romero had found his voice, his niche.

His 1978 installment of the Dead series, Dawn of the Dead, continued to mock American culture by having the zombies roam the Monroeville Mall.  Even as thoughtless zombies, they still manage to make it to the center of American consumerism. 1985 brought along Day of the Dead, which shows us how dependent we can be on our government, and how the people in charge don't always know the answers.

Since 1968, zombies have evolved.  They've gotten smarter and they've gotten faster. 28 Days Later, aka cinematic gold, changed what a zombie movie could be. You won't be able to outrun these super-human-like zombies. Today's zombie is a hunter, seeking out prey rather than stumbling around until you trip and fall.

Zombies are no longer the cult they used to be, with television shows like The Walking Dead, and iZombie, video games like Left 4 Dead, and Dead Island, zombies have exploded into mainstream culture. Even literature has tackled  the subject of the undead, Max Brooks's The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z are two best sellers, with the latter being made into a movie starring Brad freakin Pitt.

Without George A. Romero, there would be no modern zombie. Had he not pushed the envelope, this multi-million dollar scene would not be here. Romero was an innovator, a commentator, and an icon. With his passing, he leaves behind a legacy that has touched every horror fan on this earth. He will be missed, but if the zombie apocalypse does happen, it would be an honor to have him eat my brains.