Wednesday Walk: Freakazoid! Jeb! and Doris Kearns Goodwin
Is everything a reference or is everything a coincidence?
Welcome to Willoughby Hills!
As is typical every Wednesday, today I’m bring you a smattering of topics that I hope will make you a bit more curious about the world around you and give you something to think about later.
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Appliances of a Certain Age
On Sunday, I wrote about the challenges and annoyances that came from having to buy a new dishwasher after mine failed in seven years.
I’ve now been doing dishes in my Haier (which is apparently also a GE) for a few days and I’ve got to say, it’s not my favorite. The silverware basket is too short, so when it’s overloaded, it tends to tip. The tines are placed and slanted in odd ways, making loading efficiently very challenging. And apparently it doesn’t have a heated dry setting, so our dishes come out wet.
I’m wondering if I should have just waited the three months for the Bosch, although it would mean hand washing every dish for a quarter of 2023. As much as I may aspire to it at times, I’m definitively not Amish.
I suppose I was the lucky one, as Bethanee shared on Twitter that she’s currently replacing a two year old dishwasher that’s failing! Two years old.
Speaking of Twitter, this tweet randomly popped into my timeline this week of a still operational 1941 Maytag washer (click the tweet to expand it and see videos and other photos).
I’m not necessarily asking for an appliance to last 82 years, but maybe we can get closer to 20 or 25 years sometime?
#NoNewClothes- Week 18
It’s been a while since I’ve checked in on the No New Clothes challenge. I was inspired by a conversation with Amory Sivertson last year to go one year without adding anything new to my closet.
This is just a quick “proof of life” dispatch to let you know that I am now in Week 18 of the challenge and still going strong! I haven’t written much about this since Week 14, mostly because I haven’t had much to say.
I’ve been trying to opt out of our consumer culture more lately, and once you disconnect from that, it’s surprisingly easy to resist temptation. I will share more in this space when I have something more thoughtful, but in the meantime, if you missed any of the previous writings in this challenge, go back and read some past Wednesday Walks, starting here.
Did Freakazoid! Inspire… Everything?
Voice actor and writer Paul Rugg was a guest on my podcast back in 2021. At the time we chatted, he was providing the voice and some of the puppeteering for the titular alien host of the talk show Earth to Ned on Disney+.
In addition to discussing his current work, Paul and I also talked about his career working on animated shows of the 1990s like Tiny Toon Adventures and Freakazoid! Steven Spielberg produced many of these cartoon series, and Paul shared some fascinating stories about getting notes about cartoon gags from Spielberg during breaks in the filming of Schindler’s List. It was wild!
Paul popped into my Twitter feed yesterday, sharing a video of the final musical number of the Freakazoid! series on which he was a writer and actor. Take a look:
It’s a fourth-wall breaking, self-referential, star-studded musical number where a chorus of characters from the series included an animated version of Norm Abram sing along to the 1939 song We’ll Meet Again, which was originally recorded by Vera Lynn. According to Rugg on Twitter:
“I can still picture Norm Abram singing the song next to Ricardo Montalban...next to Ed Asner...next to Jonathon Harris...”
Norm was of course the star of woodworking show New Yankee Workshop, the master carpenter on This Old House, and my colleague during my years with the show.
A decade or so before I knew him, apparently Norm was making cameos on Freakazoid!, playing a fictionalized version of himself. I didn’t watch the show in its prime (and the This Old House references would likely have been over my head at that age anyways), but when I started looking up clips, there was his unmistakable New England accent, flannel, and safety glasses.
Norm wasn’t the only thing that caught my attention with the clip in Paul’s tweet though. The song We’ll Meet Again was very familiar, especially when performed in a kind of We Are the World style, with random cameos in a curtain call fashion.
Then I remembered why this felt so familiar: this was the exact way that Stephen Colbert ended his run on The Colbert Report nearly 17 years after Freakazoid! had signed off the air.
The Colbert version featured a near endless stream of cameos that included Jon Stewart, Katie Couric,, , Big Bird, Keith Olbermann, Yo Yo Ma, and many, many others.
There were so many cameos in the Colbert version that Slate released an annotated version with the names of each guest superimposed:
I always remember thinking Colbert’s finale felt familiar, like an inside joke for which I didn’t quite know the reference. It reminded me of a scene out of old Hollywood, the way I imagined Dinah Shore or Lawrence Welk ended an episode of their variety shows back in the day.
I had never considered before yesterday that perhaps the source material for the Colbert Report finale was actually a relatively obscure 90s cartoon.
Or was Colbert just a copy of Freakazoid’s copy of something else? Was this We’ll Meet Again bit just bouncing around Hollywood writers’ rooms like a hall of mirrors for decades, referencing a reference of a reference?
I was curious to find the true source- what’s the root of this scene and when was it first used?
I turned to the internet for help, both by doing my own searching and by asking folks on Twitter, and it seems that We’ll Meet Again is most famous for the ending scene of 1964’s Dr. Strangelove (hat tip to Emerson on Twitter for pointing that out).
But is Kubrick really the origin of all of this? While the music may be the same, I feel like it’s a stretch to call a large company chorus scene a callback to the nuclear apocalypse.
It’s also possible that the writers or producers behind these projects were simply entertaining themselves, maybe by referencing and twisting Dr. Strangelove. After all, by the Freakazoid! and Colbert Report era, TV was mature and the people making it had grown up with a vocabulary firmly rooted in what had come before.
Pixar is known for hiding deep cut Easter eggs in their films. The Toy Story franchise, for example, is loaded with references to The Shining, even if they’re only in there to make the filmmakers smile.
(Update: Since first publishing this piece, Twitter user @DigiRanger1994 altered me to this song’s use in the 1981 special The Muppets Go to the Movies as a finale song with Lily Tomlin.)
This notion of referencing for referencing sake may explain why Norm, the star of two adult focused PBS shows about carpentry, was included in the “cast” of Freakazoid!, a cartoon show targeting children. It all may have been as simple as the people behind the scenes liked him and wanted to meet him. (Actor/writer John McCann alluded to this in a recent tweet).
And getting back to the Colbert Report finale, it was memorable for me because of one cameo in particular: historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. Throughout the run of the series, Stephen’s anti-intellecutal conservative pundit character had used her name as a punchline, often by setting up a joke with a filthy premise, then looking to camera and saying “My apologies to Doris Kearns Goodwin.”
As a producer on Ask This Old House, I loved this bit and wanted to reference it somehow on our show, even if the only obvious reference to the audience was that her name was spoken.
If you were watching Ask This Old House in 2015, there were obvious reasons why a renowned historian appearing in our workshop made sense. She had the intellectual vibe that fit with a PBS show based in New England, but she also happened to live down the street from our studio, and is friends with most of our cast (I had first met her at the wedding of a cast member’s child).
But in my head, having her as a guest star felt like paying off that joke in a way that made me (and only me) laugh. There was no setup, there was no punchline, but somehow I still was giggly.
Adding another layer to all of this, I remember that her guest appearance on Ask This Old House was happening around the same time as her appearance in the Colbert Report finale and I remember her discussing that she was going to be in the finale with us (not knowing at the time that she would be one of several dozen in the final shot).
I wonder as I’m writing this what else Freakazoid! went on to inspire beyond (possibly) the Colbert Report finale. The show title was always stylized with an exclamation point, which seemed to pop up in an ill-fated presidential campaign in 2015.
Perhaps the only person that can answer whether Freakazoid! went on to spawn Jeb! is a presidential historian like Doris Kearns Goodwin. (Please clap.)
Thank you for reading! I always love hearing your thoughts, so please drop a line in the comments.
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Other Wednesday Walks
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Our dishwasher appears to have been made in 1975. Magic Chef. We’ve lived in this house 6 years, and every once in a while the dishwasher starts to act like maybe it’s finally on its last legs, but just about the time the research on a new one causes me to throw my hands up in despair, it suddenly heals itself and we all carry on again. What happened to America?
Heath, I have the utmost respect for you as a writer and a human being. I'm also not easily offended. But this line actually made me angry: "I’m wondering if I should have just waited the three months for the Bosch, although it would mean hand washing every dish for a quarter of 2023. As much as I may aspire to it at times, I’m definitively not Amish."
My response to this is, yes, you should've waited three months for the Bosch. As someone who grew up for 28 years without a dishwasher, and only learned how to use one when I was 29, I find it extremely ridiculous that you would compare having to wash dishes by hand for three months to becoming Amish.
I know this was a joke, obviously, but it was in poor taste. Your Wednesday walks have been a highlight of my week for a few months now, but now I'm extremely disappointed that this is the way you express disgust at the results of your own impatience.