|SISKEL AND EBERT'S HOLIDAY VIDEO GIFT GUIDE (syndication, 1987)|
Why was it such a misfit?
For this, the fiftieth slot in the long-running Misfit Christmas Special compendium, I wanted to really throw people a curve, in the vein of reviewing a Rudolph tape from 1979 or a movie about a greedy brain-slow redhead, but I had little idea what that could be. I wanted it to be the pleasant kind of curve, something nobody would expect yet would be grateful that it happened. Unfortunately, I had no real ideas, and neither did anybody on the forums.
Until recently I was going to throw in the towel and just ignore the occasion, but then.....I popped in a random, unmarked VHS from my father's vast and endless supply of recorded media, and found......THIS.
Sweet heaven on a bun, I miss Siskel and Ebert. And I can't be alone. Remember back when reviews meant something? When two opposable thumbs were such a powerful force that people would specifically look for them on packages? They weren't always right, but it was nice to have that authoritative voice make bad movie directors quake in their boots. Siskel and Ebert will only happen once. The world's media is way too fragmented now for any one voice to rise above the others. I don't know why they still put critic quotes on movie posters because these days, they're a dime a dozen. You need a good blurb for Mars Needs Moms; well, SOME fool out there is bound to like it, and who can tell the difference?
Not only does this special have the perfect stars, it hits the perfect historical sweet spot. This was the Christmas of 1987 and I was about five. S&E devoted a large section of this to their opinions on toys, and they even tried them out. Watching them cluelessly futz around with gadgets from my childhood makes this video beyond its weight in gold....we're talking more like its weight in UNOBTANIUM.
Just so you know....They play Duck Hunt. And it is worth the wait.
The duo begin the evening by trying out the Captain Power: Soldiers of the Future Gun, after making a remark about "militaristic children's programming." Popularity is a random thing; it can't be controlled despite the best of efforts. You would assume something as cool as being able to shoot at a TV show and having the show shoot back would equal instant success, but Captain Power never found any. Yes, that was the main hook, but as Ebert points out, it didn't quite work as promised. Enemy soldiers had flashing orange icons on their backs and chests, and if you aimed the gun at them and squeezed the trigger, the gun would look for that flash. If it found it, you scored a point. But that was the extent of the interactivity because, naturally, the soldiers COULDN'T react to your shooting them. Here's how they shot back: If the gun caught a pink flash, a trigger would make the gun's compartment pop off and a little figure of Captain Power would fall to the floor.
While Ebert was disappointed with the gun, he wound up gettng hooked on the show, and was proud to admit it. It's not just Roge being nuts again; J. Michael Straczynzki was writing for Captain Power and, since it was syndicated, he had no network notes holding him down. I hear it really IS good.
Gene remarks that no matter how decent Captain Power is, it'll never compare to Winky Dink And You. Erm, if you say so. He explains that Winky Dink was a show he grew up with, revealing just how old he is -- and Roger says he never watched Winky Dink because he was too old for it. Wow. I guess this is why they're dead now. Gene says Winky Dink And You is getting a VHS release, and it honestly surprised me that this show was ever re-released in any form. It was an "interactive" program where kids stuck a sheet of plastic cling over the TV screen and drew on it with crayons whenever prompted to by Winky. For example, if Winky needed to cross a bridge, he'd ask you to draw the bridge....or, in the case shown, if Winky needed you to draw eyebrows on his Aunt Martha, you would draw eyebrows on his Aunt Martha.
Ebert says those are the worst eyebrows he's ever seen. Siskel fires back that he oughta look in a mirror sometime. Yowch!
VideoArt, at first glance, looks like the forerunner to the Video Painter -- but looks can deceive. In addition to the happy kid, and the dog magically coming through his TV screen, there's a little rainbow on the box with the letters "LJN" on it. Any angry nerd who plays video games knows what THAT means.
With the Video Painter, you draw with a pen on a pad. VideoArt uses a joystick, and it sure looks frustrating. Gene and Roger struggle to produce anything but crazy scribbled lines with it, and find the insinuation kids will be able to draw the examples on the box ludicrous. Maybe Ebert's feelings that games can never be art started here.
This is another case
where the ads are an integral part of the experience, so
I will be mentioning them as they appear.
On to tapes. The first non-interactive video Gene recommends is......a video where Christie Brinkley tells you how to correctly apply makeup. "I learned, for example, how to apply a foundation -- a step, I'm told, that most women skip!" It's not a joke entry, and I'm not sure what makes Gene qualified to fairly judge a tape like this. He also recommends "Larry Hagman's Quit Smoking For Life," where the normally cigar-chomping JR sits down in front of you and tries to talk you out of lighting up. I'm not convinced even Hagman's steely stare can reverse the clinical effects of nicotine on the brain, but that's why I'm not a paid critic.
The Godfather had just been re-released on VHS, so of course Ebert recommends that. This new release was "budget-priced" at $29.95 in 1987 money, as opposed to earlier when it was $59.95 in 1983 money. He then recommends a "wonderful, hilarious movie" not many people had noticed yet. "It came out four years ago and it's called A Christmas Story." Bless you, Roger!
Gene takes control again and recommends Roxanne, a movie that had come out that summer but didn't make much money. It was about Steve Martin wearing a giant putty nose.
The two critics are baffled as to why no one was interested in this. To be fair I've never seen Roxanne, but with promotional images like this, I fully understand why it wasn't successful.
On the subject of VCRs, Gene is wild about a new machine that comes with a wand that scans barcodes. The problem with the rapidly advancing technology of the 1980's was that it had to be used by people who hadn't grown up with anything like it, and had no idea how to operate it. VCRs were the most commonly cited point of confusion for Baby Boomers, and many different solutions were tried to avoid the notorious flashing "12" clock. One company's fix in 1987 was to ship their VCR with a barcode reader and a giant laminated card that had barcodes for every month of the year, every hour of the day, and numerals for every possible TV channel. It's a noble effort, and it doesn't confuse Gene, but I could see my grandmother looking at that giant sheet of gibberish and whimpering with terror.
"But you don't have to get a VHS player this Christmas," says Gene. Oh? Is there better tech on the horizon? "There's a new alternative to the format, it's got much better picture and sound quality, and it's called SUPER VHS." Destined for domination! They then run the Super VHS display demo, which of course doesn't look any better on a non-super, EP-recorded, multi-decade-old VHS with tracking issues. "If you have the money, I would say go for the Super VHS," says Ebert. "Now, there aren't any movies you can buy with it yet, of course. But there WILL be!!" Oh, Roger.
There's also Laserdisc, or "Laservision," as Ebert keeps calling it. It's not new, but at least there's already a library of movies for it. "It's like the compact discs, only bigger," they point out.
Here's a great holiday
gift idea, courtesy of the ads....this Bill Cosby tape.
GREAT idea. Yup.
Gene and Roger seem to have figured out a way to transfer the footage, though.
They have each made their own Pixelvision movies. Roger's is called "Citizen Yuppie" and it's just Citizen Kane filmed off his TV screen, only with a new ending where "ROZEBUD" turns out to be the license plate of Kane's BMW (this was also Roger's license plate). Gene's directorial debut is a photo of Roger with a hole cut out, and Gene's replacing it. A la Clutch Cargo, "Roger" talks about how great Gene is and how he can never measure up.
Then they criticize each
other's movies. "Roger, I would have shown the BMW
logo first before I revealed the license plate. You
linger on Citizen Kane for too long; the pacing is all
off and the payoff needs to come quicker."
Siskel and Ebert then do what they did best and burst all my enthusiasm, deflating any theroetical visions of my childhood self enjoying the PXL. Roger points out, "If I was bright enough a child to be really interested in one of these, it wouldn't take me long before I'd outgrow it and look for a real camera." Gene adds, "The truth is, it costs $225, and you can probably find a used camcorder for not much more than that. The tapes would be more expensive though."
And now, at long last, they come to the Nintendo Entertainment System: the original package, with ROB's giant head. This is the moment you've all been waiting for:
Ebert fails at Duck Hunt like I've never seen anyone fail before. He's standing about one inch from the TV screen, close enough to cheat, and he STILL can't shoot a single target. Siskel, on the other hand, is an expert marksman, nailing every single bird on the wing. The contrast here is hilarious.
They also have a Sega Master System, but the only thing they felt was worth talking about were the 3-D shutter glasses. Roger is pleased because the Sega glasses fit over his own glasses, instead of having to stuff them under. He references Rad Racer offhand by saying "You can have 3-D with the Nintendo too, but it's just those cheap red-and-blue things."
Note that Siskel and Ebert had way more machines on the set than they actually played with. They have an ActionMax and they don't even touch it. Major missed opportunity there.
They're back and they're reviewing "music videos for children under four." Burning up the charts is that #1 smash hit, "Piggytoes." "Wiggle your piggytoes! Wiggle your piggytoes!" sing barefooted cops, barbers and teachers. "Two thumbs up," says Siskel & Ebert.
Lady and the Tramp had been released for home viewing for the first time, so they recommend that. Ebert also points out a video exists of a classic folktale narrated by Jack Nicholson. It sounds as awesome as you might think. Jack Nicholson should have narrated every fairy tale.
As for kid videos they dis-recommend, they really didn't like the cheap bore that was the Teddy Ruxpin video and Roger had harsh words for Barbie And The Rockers, which was about Barbie causing world peace by performing a concert on the moon, when it wasn't about Barbie trying on makeup. Personally, I see no difference between this and "Piggytoes."
There's an interesting contrast between the thought patterns of parents in the 1980s and how parents think now. In the 80's it was all "Sanitize! Sanitize! Censor all action! Bad GI Joe! Bad!" Kids today are being raised by people who lived under that stifling umbrella. "Skylanders" is the kind of product that would have been shamed by the media in the 80's. Today's grown-ups see a line of ferocious collectible figures and think "Awesome, I would have enjoyed this at their age too."
I'm bringing this up because Siskel and Ebert bring onscreen a plush thing and introduce it as "a soft Transformer." "See, it's better for children because it has no hard or rough edges," Ebert says. A SOFT TRANSFORMER?? ARE YOU KIDDING ME??
Wait, wait -- never mind, Ebert didn't say that. I searched the special top-to-bottom for the Soft Transformer scene and couldn't find it. It turned out to be from a PM Magazine episode later on in the same tape. The real person you want to direct your wrath to is named Teresa Richardson. I'm just keeping this here instead of editing it out because....SOFT TRANSFORMER??? This cannot go unavenged!
"Now, for those of you looking for a video version of 16 or Tiger Beat magazine...." begins Gene, segueing into a video about a day in the life of Mackenzie Astin. Who's that? No one knows, because he was on The Facts of Life and no kid cared about The Facts Of Life. He was also the progeny of John Astin and Patty Duke, but that didn't take him very far. Gene then decides to shoot off a random opinion. "You know, enough about entertainers....I want to see interviews about scientists, about teachers, about artists...there's this artist I really enjoy; let's get those people on camera!" I hope Gene wasn't waiting his entire short life for that.
This retro blast wouldn't feel complete without a classically kitschy Tom Peterson ad, at least around Portland. I've mentioned this guy before and there's a reason I keep doing it. He ran an empire around a major intersection, occupying three buildings in a circle that were connected by his own personal trolley car. He would repeat goofy mottos like "Free is a VERY good price!" and give away things with his face on them -- T-shirts, watches, free classes at microwave cooking school, "Tom Peterson Haircuts" to make you look like him, you name it. If you grew up in Portland during the 1980s, then you love Tom Peterson. Nobody who knows of Tom Peterson can hate him. He was our Willy Wonka. He probably had little orange men working for him.
The only other way to see Tom Peterson outside of old videos taped in Portland is to find Mister Holland's Opus, which was filmed here and had Tom playing a rally announcer. But nobody voluntarily looks for Mister Holland's Opus, so that doesn't do him any good.
At this time, they finally explain where they got the Winky Dink tape from. A company called Shokus Video was selling episodes of really old TV shows via catalog. Roger picked the unaired pilot for You Bet Your Life and Gene picked an episode of The $64,000 Question. Biased and clouded with nostalgia, they had as much fun watching them as I had watching this.
You might think this special is winding down, but no. The VERY BEST PART OF IT is about to come. Gene and Roge choose the moments after the final commercial break to reveal their picks for the single worst TV products of 1987. Roger's pick is kind of dull, a remote attachment that lets you aim from any direction. "How lazy do you have to be to need this? Remember when the remote itself was a luxury?" Yeah, har har. Gene's is far better. He caught wind of a "personalized" episode of Lady Lovelylocks and the Pixietails for sale, where if you sent them some money, your name and a photo of yourself, they would insert you into the cartoon. So he sent for one. This was the glorious result:
If this company was in any way competent, Gene should have been stopped at the gate. Most people knew who he was, they'd seen his show....when they got that name and photograph, the obvious reaction should have been "Waaait a minute....Gene Siskel?? Nice try, buddy!" But it didn't happen, he got through, and it made for the best capper this special could have gotten. I would give it Two Thumbs Up if that wasn't still copyrighted.
Why didn't it fit in?
If past years are any indication, I probably won't get much this Christmas, but I doubt anything under the tree will be able to top Siskel and Ebert's Holiday Video Gift Guide. From now on, every year, I plan to warm up the fireplace, pop some corn, snuggle up in an oversized blanket on the sofa, and watch Roger Ebert fail at Duck Hunt.