Monday, August 29, 2011

"If I wanted Chekhov, I'd have worn my polo neck": The best existing songs that are theme music for shows you've probably never heard of

For a creepy time, call Andy Dick.

1. "Somebody Start a Fight or Something" by TISM (The Green Room with Paul Provenza)
This rousing 2004 track by the Aussie alt-rock band TISM delivers a message of "Drop your pretentious airs and start keeping it real" ("Listen, motherfucker, let me make this clear/I've had your fucking poetry up to here... If I wanted Chekhov, I'd have worn my polo neck"), so it's the perfect theme music for a frank and uncensored Showtime stand-up comic panel show that's the anti-Comics Unleashed with Byron Allen.

In other words, the stand-ups are required to have an actual conversation with each other, instead of pretending they're having a conversation when what they're really doing is just reciting their routines. Moderator Paul Provenza's anti-Comics Unleashed format has resulted in lively and thought-provoking discussions like the one Provenza, Bill Burr, Lizz Winstead, Russell Peters, Colin Quinn, Caroline Rhea and Tony Clifton (!) had about Tracy Morgan's apologies for his homophobic jokes during a recent episode that took place at Montreal's Just for Laughs festival. (Also in that same episode, Peters, an Indian Canadian comic, gives the funniest description of what porn flicks are like in a country where its movie stars can't even kiss onscreen. I can't do Peters' Indian porn joke any justice if I attempt to repeat it, so I won't attempt to.)

During an interview to promote The Green Room, Provenza said one of the purposes of his show is to get stand-ups who are always "on" to leave behind their one-liner comfort zones or stage personas and just be themselves. The frequent archness of the present-day stand-up world is a trend he dislikes:

Many comedians these days "take on characters. It's a lot of winking and nodding. Some comedians almost even apologize for the fact that they're working in the form of comedy, and they make fun of the form as they're doing it. That's the overriding trend. So what you get is people who are not actually talking from the heart. They're always putting some layer of detachment from their real, you know, emotional and intellectual passions."

In other words, he wants them to pull no punches, whether it's onstage or on The Green Room. Somebody start a fight or something.

2. "Yalili Ya Aini" by Jah Wobble's Invaders of the Heart (The Smartest Man in the World)
I first heard this hypnotic 1994 track by former Public Image Ltd bassist Jah Wobble, his band Invaders of the Heart and singer Natacha Atlas (Allmusic calls it "one of the best bits of sexy, North African lurch that Wobble and [guitarist Justin] Adams have ever set to tape") while tuning in to SomaFM's Secret Agent, which has it on constant rotation. So when it wound up as the theme music for comedian Greg Proops' stream-of-consciousness podcast The Smartest Man in the World, I thought, "Sweet! It's that Arabian-sounding chillout joint from Secret Agent with the title that always escapes me."

"Yalili Ya Aini" perfectly establishes the nocturnal and international feel of The Smartest Man, which is recorded in front of a live audience, either at The Smartest Man's homebase, West Hollywood's Bar Lubitsch, or whatever venue Proops is performing at that night, whether it's in his old home turf of San Francisco or Melbourne. Unlike most comedy podcasts, The Smartest Man doesn't follow an interview format.

"I knew I didn't want to do that [interview format] because other people were doing it and doing better. Marc [Maron] and Jimmy [Pardo] and everybody just murdering it," said Proops to Laughspin.

What listeners are getting in each Proopcast is essentially an extra 60-to-70-minute stand-up set by Proops. But instead of joke-after-joke-after-joke, Proops delivers not-always-jokey but always interesting ruminations on current events, music, film history, baseball history (he's particularly fond of the San Francisco Giants and the achievements of the Negro Leagues, so he's joked that no Proopcast is complete without him mentioning Satchel Paige) and politics (he's progressive, so President Obama, who has been to progressives what the Green Lantern movie is to nerds, irks him as much as the Tea Party does).

The Smartest Man is where I got my first exposure to British punk poet John Cooper Clarke's "Evidently Chickentown," which Proops once recited to thunderous applause. I've become a new fan of "Evidently Chickentown"--and I don't even like spoken word (here's how much I understand the appeal of spoken word: whenever there's a slam poet on TV, I'm like, "Okay, when's the DJ gonna show up and drop the beat?").

Basically, The Smartest Man is like Craig Ferguson's freewheeling monologue but much more political and not as Scottish. And a little trancey, thanks to "Yalili Ya Aini."

3. "Elysian Fields" by Minus 8 (Elvis Mitchell: Under the Influence)
Elvis Mitchell had the suavest opening titles of any interview show. On a loungy-looking NEP Studios set decorated with dangling lightbulbs, Mitchell walked out dressed to the nines, to the tune of the swanky 2000 downtempo track "Elysian Fields" by Minus 8, a.k.a. Swiss DJ/producer Robert Jan Meyer. This wasn't Conan in a suit gawkily riding his bicycle through Manhattan in the opening credits, that's for damn sure.

Under the Influence, in which the host of KCRW's The Treatment would chat with actors and directors about movies and movie stars they admire, was produced for only one season on TCM in 2008, but TCM still airs it from time to time. The Bill Murray episode is worth DVRing (the Laurence Fishburne ep is pretty good too). Mitchell was able to get Murray, who's notoriously guarded (except when he's on Letterman), to open up during his show and give candid discussions about movie acting and comediennes he either enjoyed watching ("Elaine May is like the most attractive woman in the world... If I had come up when Elaine May was coming up, I would have chained her to a typewriter and made love to her like every four hours just to keep her going. She's the funniest.") or couldn't understand the appeal of ("[Lucille Ball] never really made me laugh for some reason. I don't know why. Lucy was never my girl.").

"Elysian Fields" was a great choice to open and close a TCM interview show because of Minus 8's samples of dialogue from old movies (in the original version of "Elysian Fields," the samples are from the first Bogart/Bacall scene in one of my favorite movies, The Big Sleep, but the 2007 version that was used during Under the Influence replaced the Big Sleep audio with dialogue from some old movie I've never seen and is most likely not as awesome as The Big Sleep). I wonder how the Under the Influence intro would have looked with "Yakety Sax" instead of "Elysian Fields." Alex, I think I'll go with "What is not-as-suave?"

4. "Reckoner" by Radiohead (Vanguard)
Any investigative journalism series that would open with Radiohead is tops in my book. For those who weren't aware of Current TV before Keith Olbermann joined the channel, it was best known for the compelling and sometimes difficult-to-watch documentary series Vanguard. Correspondents like Laura Ling, Mariana van Zeller and Adam Yamaguchi often put their lives at risk for the sake of the story. One such story, human trafficking in North Korea, brought international attention to Vanguard in 2009 when the North Korean government arrested Ling and her footage editor Euna Lee for trespassing while they were doing research for their piece. Ling and Lee were sentenced to a labor camp for 12 years--until Bill and Hillary Clinton intervened and ex-President Clinton successfully negotiated with Kim Jong Il for their release.

Though Vanguard no longer uses Radiohead's enigmatic and contemplative 2008 track "Reckoner," it's still an incredible program. The recent Vanguard installment "Sex, Lies & Cigarettes" is an intriguing examination of the tobacco industry's insidious marketing tactics in Third World countries like the Smoking Baby's home turf of Indonesia, although there's an angle that Vanguard overlooked: the connection between the tobacco industry's tactics and environmental racism.

Gnarls Barkley's equally terrific live cover of "Reckoner":

5. "Pheromone" by Prince (Video LP)
I remember coming home from school and turning on The Avengers on A&E and flipping over to BET's music video/interview program Video LP whenever Steed and Peel were interrupted by a commercial break. I went back and forth between enjoying young Diana Rigg's catsuited body and judo chops and enjoying Video LP host Madelyne Woods' legs, as well as the way she maintained her resolve in the face of inarticulate rappers and new jack musicians whom I realized I never wanted to hear speak in interviews.

I know some rappers fare well in an interview setting, but most of them don't, and as someone who digs their music, it's torturous to watch or hear. If you want to hear their opinions, just listen to their lyrics. Don't drag them to do a lengthy interview. They're lost without a breakbeat or a beatbox (or a bong). It's like when HBO tries to interview boxers after their fights. What do they expect them to say after 12 rounds? "The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain"? What's more likely to come out of their mouths is "Myeyzcudopngrb."

Back to Woods and Video LP. Woods left BET a long time ago but is still a reporter (and is actually on Twitter), and Video LP is largely forgotten, aside from a few YouTube clips and A Tribe Called Quest's "Electric Relaxation," in which Phife Dawg--one of those MCs who thrives in an interview setting--name-checked Woods ("Hon, you got the goods, like Madelyne Woods").

Video LP also bears the distinction of being the only TV show that contained theme music by Prince (he contributed to Video LP an instrumental version of "Pheromone," a song that later surfaced on his 1994 album Come). I bet Prince frowns upon scripted TV (even though he once made a guest appearance on Muppets Tonight), but I wish he'd contribute another TV theme because he's such a musical genius. It would probably sound like this (FF to 3:29):

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