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February, 2016 Issue

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SPANKY'S BACK

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The definition of a "Cult" according to Webster's, actually Merriam-Webster (Where did Merriam come from? Perhaps the same place that Roebuck of Sears & Roebuck went to.) is as follows:

I believe we could add music to that definition, since the bands that have cult followings actually give them names: The Grateful Dead has "Deadheads," Phish has "Phans,"" Kiss has "Kiss Army," Jimmy Buffet has "Parrotheads," and Insane Clown Posse has "Juggalos & Juggalettes."

The term "cult film" first appeared in 1970 to describe the culture that surrounded underground films and midnight movies that were in opposition to mainstream tastes. Or as media historian Jeffrey Sconce put it, "marginal films that exist outside critical and cultural acceptance." Often these films open as box office bombs and take a long while to develop a following.

My grandmother just stopped by my writing desk to ask what I was writing this month's column about. I replied "Cult movies." She said, "Oh, you mean the movie about that cult Tom Cruise is in?" I explained to her that a cult movie is not a movie about cults, but unfortunately she had not heard of any of the films I used as examples. Until I mentioned "The Wizard Of Oz," the grandaddy of cult movies. (If you don't believe "The Wizard Of Oz" has a cult following you obviously have never attended a Pride Parade.) The movie did not open to cultural acceptance; it was MGM's most expensive production of all time, and the movie initially recorded a loss of $1,145,000 for the studio, not turning a profit until ten years later. Nor did the film find universal critical acceptance. Russell Maloney, film critic for The New Yorker, wrote that the movie displayed "no trace of imagination, good taste, or ingenuity" and declared it "a stinkeroo." But the movie got the last laugh on Maloney later that year by winning three Academy Awards for Best Score, Best Song (Over The Rainbow), and Best Performance by a Juvenile (Judy Garland), as well as garnering four more nominations for Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Special Effects, and even Best Picture (losing to "Gone With The Wind" which was also directed by Victor Fleming, who obviously had a very good year!) The movie is now listed on more "100 Greatest Films" lists than I have room in this column to mention. More importantly, in 1956 it started being broadcast annually on television, making it the most viewed motion picture in TV syndication. Stinkaroo my ass.

Of course "The Wizard Of Oz" is not the only movie that is televised annually to a devoted audience; what would Christmas be without "It's A Wonderful Life," "Miracle On 34th Street," and more recently "A Christmas Story?" But it is the only movie I am aware of that that is paired with Pink Floyd's "Dark Side Of The Moon" to create the party entertainment "Dark Side Of The Rainbow" (a cultural phenomenon the members of Pink Floyd insist happened by pure coincidence).

The very first cult movie I witnessed in a theater was a midnight showing of "Harold and Maude," whose ultimate May-December romance (actually closer to January-December romance) was definitely in opposition to mainstream tastes. The film was so unique that I would still list it in my top 10 favorite movies. It also made me a fan of an activity closely associated with cult films, the Midnight Movie. The next one I attended was a film that is still going strong after forty years, the longest running theatrical release in history, making it the undisputed king of cult movies, "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."

My first exposure to Tim Curry's performance as the "sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania," Dr. Frank N. Furter made a profound impression on me (although perhaps an even bigger impact on Bruce Jenner) as did my first exposure to audience participation at a movie. We were not just being entertained by a film, we were entertaining each other during a film, a creative fusion of live and recorded entertainment.

My foray into cult films continued with the "so bad it is good" genre with "Plan 9 From Outer Space" and "Troll 2." The ultra disturbing movies like "Pink Flamingos," "Eraserhead," and "Freaks." As well as the over the top violent films like "Toxic Avenger" and "Evil Dead." More recently I became ordained as a Dudeist Priest in the Church of the Latter-Day Dude, because what is not to like about "The Big Lebowski?"

My research for this column got me to wondering if, as Merriam and Webster say, a cult is group of supporters with a group mind set devoted to a person, then surely there must be cult comedians. Of all the performing arts I believe humor is the most subjective; what one person finds appealing another finds appalling. For example, the group thinking of the audience of Bill Mahar would certainly not enjoy the comedy of Dennis Miller, or vice versa.

During my comedy career I was able to develop faithful followings in a variety of locations: Colorado, Hawaii, the Caribbean Islands, the Pacific Northwest, and Amsterdam. My agent pointed out what all these places have in common, an abundance of stoners; I however am not sure if that fully explains my popularity there. I am sure that I perform a character act, and my comedic persona appeals to those who enjoy a twisted irreverent point of view (which my agent pointed out most tokers have). Although I am aware of the limitations of my appeal, I confess there have been times when my agent waved a check so big that I agreed to perform for an audience I knew I was not suitable for. I regret I allowed my greed to supplant my artistic integrity, and tailored my material to fit a point of view I did not fully share. Or worse, did material I knew risked not being well received. (I had to write an apology to a Catholic college for asking "So if you don't get condoms here, what do they give you, calendars?") The greatest example of my comedy not being a good fit with the audience came as a total surprise to me; I was hired by a resort to perform for 300 people, and once on stage I realized none of them spoke a word of English. Why they did not hire a juggler or magician I will never know.

If you are considering a career as a comedian or a filmmaker, I encourage you to chase your dreams, and foremost to be yourself. If you happen to appeal to the mainstream, great. If you don't, just hang on until you find your audience. In the immortal words of Dr. Frank N. Furter, "Don't dream it, be it."

Steven Kent McFarlin (AKA "Spanky") has been described by the press as a "campus entertainment icon." He has been voted "Campus Comic of the Year" and the "Campus Performer of the Year" (LaffGuru.com). His credits include over fifty TV appearances, including: Showtime, Good Morning America, and The Late Show. You may contact him at standupcomic@live.com.