Review: Bad TV, The Very Best of the Very Worst, by Craig Nelson

Bad TV - Craig Nelson

[Currently there's a really horrible quality jpg used for this book cover but I've been too busy to get around to taking a photo of my copy. Which is silly because it's bad quality is continuing to bother me every time I see it.]


Once upon a time when you wanted to remember a really weird and/or terrible television show or movie there was no wikipedia to turn to. No IMDB, no Google, nothing. At best the internet could offer up a few places on Usenet or whatever you could find in the Simtel archives. Yes, those were the desolate 1980s, pity us, the pop cultural junkies of the time, for we had to look to paper books.


Having a book like this - where you could look up shows you'd seen and also read about even worse ones you hadn't - was really fun. If you hadn't seen the program you could at least marvel at the synopsis and wonder how anyone would green light it. It's only now that I reread the book that I see some really...let's say culturally insensitive (or ignorant, or tone deaf - that last one probably the best choice) moments here and there, which make the jokes drop like lead balloons. Or for me anyway. Joking about another culture or race isn't ever easy to pull off in comedy, and when it doesn't work - well, I don't think the examples here are in deeply offensive territory, but they also aren't funny. (Multiple examples follow in quotes, but feel free to differ with me on this call, I'm ok with that.)


It's also hard to find the book as funny now that I'm able to compare the writing with the vast amount of online snarky and humorous reviews, on such sites like Television Without Pity or the AV Club. Now it's much easier to dig up more bad tv facts online than are related in the book. At this point I'm hanging on to Bad TV more as memorabilia than a resource.


Here's a quote with examples of times the humor doesn't always hit the funny mark, for a movie I particularly love. Note how in 1996 there's not really a worry about spoilers, because the assumption was that it wasn't easy to hunt down the old tv shows, and many of the films mentioned (though I know you could catch some of the Toho films on tv at least), p 228:


 Mothra, 1962. Even against such overwhelming competition this is by far the nuttiest Japanese monster movie of all time. Filmed in eye-popping Tohoscope, Mothra begins when a scary typhoon runs a Japanese battleship aground in the "Atomic Testing Area," and what do the survivors find but evidence of a long-lost civilization and the Alilenas - six-inch-high twins, dressed in sarongs, who always sing, talk, and read mortal minds in synch. Kidnapped by a bug-eyed Janpano-American half-breed, Alilenas tour Japan as the stars of The Secret Fairies Show, becoming a national sensation beloved by all (as if the Japanese had never seen tiny, doll-like women before.)


Back on the island, oddly swarthy natives perform ceremonial dances until a giant egg breaks open, revealing an immense horned caterpillar (who looks like a yam with LED eyes), which immediately races through Tokyo in search of the petite songstresses. After destroying a Mobil gas station, many kamikazelike planes, and a radio tower, the caterpillar enrobes itself in a cocoon, finally emerging as the aluminium-foil-eyed Mothra (who looks like something one of your friends could make with golf balls, Styrofoam, and a pillowcase). Once again Mothra races through Japan in search of the diminutive chanteuses.


In the surprise ending the good guys (a card-carrying journalist comedian and his plucky female shutterbug consort) return the Alilenas to Mothra, who flies them back to their happy island, where everyone dances till dawn. Topping off this heaven-sent plot are the special effects (which look like they were done by precocious ten-year-olds): the Alilenas' standins are obviously kimono souvenir dolls, and Mothra's wings send Matchbox cars and trucks flying through downtown Tokyo.


This was all such a hit that Toho made a sequel, Ghidrah (1965), wherein Mothra, Rodan, and Godzilla team up to fight the fire-breathing, three-headed Ghidrah lizard, with a return engagement from the Alilenas.


Those curious about the "Alilenas" should read this wikipedia page for The Peanuts. I'll admit to having an mp3 of one of their songs from the film somewhere in my iTunes. (And there're two plastic Ghidrahs in my apartment, and something like four Godzillas.) For an example of how quickly you have more pop cultural  info in one click, you can read the wikipedia on the film's themes and depiction of the US that Bad TV misses.


(As a comparison, when I reread a movie review book like Roger Ebert's I Hated Hated Hated This Movie - a compilation of 40 yrs of review columns - the humor holds up well, even from columns that are of the same era as Bad TV. Though it's probably not a great comparison because Ebert's humor is different than that in Bad TV, which tends toward the snarky.)


At this point I should fill you on on the book that Bad TV is riffing on: the Medved brothers' Golden Turkey Awards, a book that came out in 1980. (Other Medved books: The Fifty Worst Films of All TimeThe Hollywood Hall of Shame: The Most Expensive Flops in Movie History, and Son of Golden Turkey Awards.) But this isn't hidden, in fact the author gives props to the Golden Turkeys, and uses his own award system: The Tammi Awards, where Tammi is named after Three Mile Island as "the ultimate symbol of waste" because "these flops represent such an incredible waste of talent, time, and money" (p. 8).


The author Craig Nelson isn't the Craig T. Nelson who was on the TV series Coach - in case you were wondering. I'm not entirely sure if it's the same author as this Craig Nelson on Amazon since it doesn't list Bad TV, though on Goodreads it does seem to be the same Nelson that's written Bad TV and other history books.


Random, slightly off tangent remark - rereading this book reminded me of the film/documentary/humorous thing that aired frequently on cable television in the 80s: It Came From Hollywood. It was one long mash up of oodles of clips of weird scifi B movies with skits and narration by SNL alums here and there. It kills me that they've not released it on DVD but apparently it's still hung up in copyright issues.



Now some random quotes to give you an idea of some of the programs mentioned, and some that are especially WTF, how did this get made?! Some of these excerpts will give you an idea of why I still like parts of this book. I've also linked to wikipedia all over the place, in case you want more info (and there are some incorrect facts in the book). You will probably want to go search YouTube for clips once you read about some of these:


p 102, 104:

 Pink Lady & Jeff, 1980. The Legend, Pink Lady - two very young and very beautiful women, Mitsuyo (Mie) Nemoto and Keko (Kei) Masuda - was Japan's #1 music act. Pink Lady wore beautiful gowns, lots of makeup, and giggled simperingly all the time. Pink Lady could dance a little, and could pose in gracious tableaux with wonderful sets. Pink Lady could only speak about five words in English: hello, good-bye, pink, lady, and Jeff. Pink Lady sang frothy American pop music in tiny, annoying little-girl voices, with heavy accents that made the songs totally incomprehensible to those who could speak English.


Immediately, America did not like the squeaking Pink Lady (even though the show was developed by Brandon "Golden Gut" Tartikoff and produced by puppeteers Sid and Marty Krofft, who also did The Brady Bunch Variety Hour), and we got rid of it after a mere six episodes. Jeff was American Jeff Altman, whose comedy was as good as Pink Lady's English, with such gut-busting lines as "You just get turned on by my sexy round eyes." He went on to become a regular on The Starland Vocal Band Show and Solid Gold...and he's still trying to have a career in television.


p 146-7: 

Cop Rock, 1990. ...At the end of the 1980s many TV producers and executives got very excited thinking about radical new shows that mixed standard television genres. This technique, however, frequently ended up creating mongrels, something like a cross between a dachshund and a St. Bernard. The producers especially liked mixing drama with comedy to make dramedies - The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, for instance - but none of these mongrel programs did well enough to stay on the air.


This trend of failure and humiliation might have stopped lesser men, but not the mighty Bochco, who flew in the face of reason to imagine the winning combination for a new show as being a drusical (dramatic musical): the notorious Cop Rock. The show attempted to merge gritty New York realism (Bochco's signature more-ironic-than-thou aesthetic) with the best artifice Hollywood has to offer - music from popsters like Randy Newman (whose biggest hits were the novelties "I Love LA" and "Short People").


...The drama (which was tough, urban, and edgy, as good as anything on Hill Street) would suddenly stop dead in its tracks to have its characters burst into song, usually for no apparent reason. ...During the premiere's big trial scene the verdict is read, the court reporter's desk turns into a synthesizer, the jury becomes a gospel choir, and the judge and accused do a call-and-response. Finally a pathetic crack addict sings a lullaby to her baby before selling it off to infertile yuppy scum. The whole show is so goofy and inane, you can't even give Bochco credit for trying.


p 176: 

The Amy Fisher Extravaganza: If MOW [Movies-of-the-Week] in the nineties became all about women with guns and who they kill, no one aroused the networks like Amy Fisher, the "Long Island Lolita" whose story was a "real life Fatal Attraction."

...All three networks rushed out made-fors within days of the sentencing (two of which, for the first time on TV, aired simultaneously), and all got fantastic ratings - over a third of the American population watched at least one.


In case you were wondering, those movies were: Amy Fisher: Her Story (or Treachery in the Suburbs: The Amy Fisher Story, according to EW, NBC), Casualties of Love: The Long Island Lolita Story (CBS), and Beyond Control: The Amy Fisher Story (ABC). Here's a longer LA Times story on the three, if you really want more tv history. The book devotes five pages to these three movies, three of which contain a chart comparing whose version of the story the producers used, how the actors compare with the real life people involved, sample dialog, etc.


p. 219: 

Can't Stop The Music, 1980. A neutron bomb that's every inch as bad as you've heard, Can't Stop The Music is so sodden and stillborn that it completely destroyed the movie careers of everyone involved: director Nancy Walker, producer Allan Carr, and costars Valerie Perrine, Bruce Jenner, and the Village People. The only one to emerge unscathed was first-timer Steve Guttenberg...who had to star in all those Police Academys as penance before rehabilitating his career with Cocoon.


Even on television, with commercial breaks and some of the nudity edited away, Can't Stop the Music is so immensely terrible, you'll be overwhelmed with shock and speechless with wonder. Why make a musical about disco when disco was obviously on its last legs? Why hire Jenner, Perrine, and Guttenberg as the stars of a musical when they can't sing or dance? Why hire Nancy Walker as director (musicals are notoriously hard to make) when she's never directed a thing in her life? ....How could the script escape rewrite with the lines like "Anybody who could swallow two Sno Balls and a Ding Dong shouldn't have any trouble with pride!"


Can't Stop is the story of a disco king composer Jacques Morali, who cowrote the script and all of the music, but obviously didn't bother much with the latter since this stiff couldn't even produce a hit soundtrack album. Steve Guttenberg is Jack Morell, the roller-skating would-be DJ and teen composer. His roommate, the retired supermodel Perrine, takes his songs to her ex-boyfriends in the music business and, when Guttenberg (who's so naive, he hallucinates after smoking a joint) needs singers for his demo, she forms the Village People (it's never explained why they look they way they do, though when a music producer first sees them, he comments "I hate Halloween.")...


p 227: 

Lisztomania, 1975. Writer/director Ken Russell going completely over the top with Women in Love, The Devils, and Altered States is exactly what's made him one of today's most beloved show-business figures. But if you've ever wondered what was beyond over the top - what it'd be like if an auteur went insane (and took his costume designer and art director with him) - you need look no farther than Lisztomania. Staring Who crooner Roger Daltrey (acting as well as he did in Tommy) and featuring topless groupies, daughter Cosima practicing voodoo, and sailor Richard Wagner (his cap embroidered with NIETZSCHE) who becomes both Dracula and Frankenstein, Lisztomania's opening scene is a woman hungrily eating a banana while her saber-wielding husband slices her lover's big, white, dripping candle to bits - and gets more excessive from there. With naked females worshiping an obelisk with a glowing tip, porcelain buttock sconces issuing knockout gas, a giant panties funhouse slide, a fifteen-foot alabaster penis (which gets guillotined), Rick Wakeman as an Aryan monster and Ringo Starr as the Pope, this astounding cross between Hair and a Liberace extravaganza wants to be all things to all people - and kills itself trying to get there. But what a fun suicide it is.


Here's a short article from the Guardian (Feb 2013): Lisztomania: The Most Embarrassing Historical Film Ever Made?


p 290:

Mr. Smith, 1983. A remake of the Frank Capra movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but taking the Jimmy Stewart role is CJ (star of Tarzan the Ape Man and Every Which Way But Loose), a talking orangutan with a huge IQ - the product of scientific experiments (see? animal testing isn't all bad). When his special talents are discovered, Mr. Smith is of course immediately hired as a government consultant.


p 292:

My Living Doll, 1964. Psychiatrist Bob Cummings has such trouble with patient Julie Newmar (later to enthrall us as Batman's Catwoman) that she moves in with him. Her main problem? She's a robot who can't seem to get the hang of being the perfect woman, even though she's 37-26-36 and can type 240 words a minute. Julie especially has difficulty being perfectly servile to men; if she turns uppity, though, a guy can just reset her by pressing her birthmark buttons. Though Newmar is fantastic doing replicate slapstick with a German accent, the show's whole attitude is remarkably hideous - the opening credits, for example, show her in a teddy and announce "also starring Julie Newmar as The Doll." Even Cummings (the photographer sex fiend from Love That Bob) thought this show was so bad that he bailed out halfway through its run; on the air it was explained he'd gone to Pakistan.


p. 296:

Quark, 1978: A transsexual, a chatty but boring houseplant (who tries to seduce a human by explaining the secrets of pollination), Ergo the plasmapet, Betty and Betty (a navigator and her clone), a perpetually frightened robot, and Richard Benjamin pilot a garbage barge in outer space.





Introduction: The Bad vs. The BAD

Television...The Mysteries of the Universe...and the Secret of Life


The Nominating Committee

Part 1: It's a BAD, BAD, BAD, BAD World

The BAD Classics (That's Why We Loved Them) Hall of Fame

How Could You? (When BAD Things Happen to Good People)


Part 2: The Tammi Awards

The Variety Show Nominees

The Music Video Nominees

The Game Show Nominees - The Chernobyl Lifetime Achievement Award

The Drama Nominees

The Kids' Show Nominees

The Made-for-TV Movie Nominees

The Bastards! (My Parents Were Movies) Nominees

Special Bonus Section: The Remarkably BAD Movie Nominees

The News, Sports, Newslike, and Pseudosports Nominees

The Worst Overall Network Programming Nominees

The Infomercial Nominees

The Sitcom Nominees

The Golden Tammi Award

Available on Video

Network Addresses






Hey there! Have you really made it all the way to the end? Are you too a fan of really bad tv/film?! Then I have some podcast links to share with you, because I too am a bad  movie addict. Or at least of listening/reading other people tell me about bad movies - because I can not make myself watch all of the badness. Anyway, here are two movie podcasts - and each with a very different style of humor and hosts' background.


How Did This Get Made - three comedians/actors (Paul Scheer, June Diane Raphael and Jason Mantzoukas) that work in LA discuss a movie, attempting to understand/explain/laugh at the plot, often using their production background to pick out particular bits of industry weirdness. Podcast frequently has great choices of special guests. Best sample, one of their live shows: Birdemic, with guest Weird Al Yankovic.


The Flop House - three writers/comedians/friends (Dan McCoy, Elliott Kalan, and Stuart Wellington; two of them write for the Daily Show) in the NYC area discuss a movie right after watching it and try and make sense of it. After the movie discussion they recommend better movies (than the one they just saw) and then read letters (there is always an annoying song pre-letter-reading - you have now been warned). I've not listened to this long enough to have an idea of which episode is a good sample show, but I am still in shock that the movie Food Fight even exists, so you can listen to that one and get back to me if you have a similar WTF reaction.