Sometimes captioning goes wrong. Sometimes a line like, "Hotter than Memphis Asphalt," becomes, "Hotter than Memphis Ass Farm." Okay, that only happened once, on an episode of Sun Records. Of course the Internet caught it right away. Thanks Internet.
When it comes to honoring African-American heroes, Memphis has had its own awkward moments as witnessed by text on the original Tom Lee monument erected in 1954. But this is next level stuff. Key bit from The Tennessean:
"On Wednesday, families and children, city officials and the mayor joined descendants of Frederick Douglass in the grassy park bottom where the famed abolitionist visited more than a century ago.
Together they unveiled the new sign that rectified a mistake that for many years left the park with the wrong name — Fred Douglas Park."
Douglass is, as noted by President D.J. Trump, an, "example of somebody who's done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more."
I remember the first time Robert Raiford tried to retire.
"I don't know what your religion is like, and your religion may not be like mine," he told me, looking back over the 10,000 nights he'd spent in his own little garden of earthly delights on Vance Ave., where the words "No Discrimination" were painted on the wall for all to see. "But when I was in the club and it was full and everybody was having a good time, I couldn't help but feel that that was the way the world was supposed to be all the way back at the beginning of time." I was pretty sure then, and remain convinced that everybody who ever drained a quart of beer and danced the Electric Slide at Raiford's Hollywood Disco on one of those special nights when the club was packed, felt the exact same way.
Raiford moved to Memphis in 1962 and took a job pumping gas at Mabe's Esso on Poplar Ave.
In the '70s, he co-owned a body shop with his brothers, and his automotive skills took him from Memphis to Chicago and from Chicago to Wisconsin. But the cold weather didn't agree with his Southern temperament. In 1978, he returned to Memphis and rented the dilapidated building at 115 Vance and began transforming it into the most personalized disco in the world. His fingerprints were, literally, everywhere. And even with the colored lights, the thick cherry-scented smoke, and sex-o-matic dance competitions, Raiford's felt less like a club than the cozy private living room of Memphis' Avenging Disco Godfather. In the DJ's booth — and sometimes on the drum kit — Raiford reigned supreme in colorful suits, hats, and James Brown-style capes, spinning classic wax for the generations.
I first visited Raiford's place in the early 90's. It was around 3 a.m., and I'd just gotten off work and made my nightly stumble from Automatic Slim's, where I cooked and waited tables, toward Wolf's Corner on S. Main for a quick beer before bed. Wolf's was closed. Likewise, Earnestine and Hazel's. If I was going to cap the night, Raiford's Hollywood, the lit-up little nightspot just up the street was my only option. I almost didn't go, because I'd heard it was a hooker bar, and not safe. I'm not sure I've ever felt safer anywhere else in the world. That night, which ended with me making a new friend, and a ride home in the back of one of Raiford's customized Caddies, was the first of many evenings I'd spend at the Hollywood, back when very few people lived in the S. Main district, and everybody knew everybody else. It became a kind of clubhouse. A late night refuge for all kinds of folks — blacks, whites, greens, purples and plaids, Drag Queens, and disco kings; anybody who could get along while they were getting down.
"I call myself the Miracle Child," Raiford told me once, swearing he hardly ever had bad day. And when he was spinning records, it was impossible for anybody in the house to have a bad night.
RIP Robert Raiford. You made Memphis funky the way it's supposed to be. And weird the way it's supposed to be. And welcoming the way it's supposed to be. Flights of angels, and all that jazz...
And when Joe looked back at the sweat upon his tracks
He had nothing to show but his age
He had nothing to show but his age - Phil Ochs - "Ballad of Joe Hill."
This week at First Congo, Nashville's Shelby Bottom String Band provides the music for a multimedia history of early 20th-century folk singer and union organizer Joe Hill and a discussion about art and activism in the Trump era.
Hill was an immigrant, but in the early decades of the 20th-Century there wasn't a native-born worker in America who couldn't relate to the stories he told in his songs. In addition to giving American labor its marching music, Hill became the movement's patron saint when he was cut down by a firing squad for a murder he almost certainly didn't commit.
Last words: ""Fire — go on and fire!"
It's a pay what you can event, Wednesday, March 15th at 6:30 p.m. - 8:30 p.m. First Congregational Church, 1000 South Cooper. For additional details, click here.
Last week's issue of the Memphis Flyeralerted readers to Blood on the Dance Floor 5 at the Hard Rock Cafe. The annual event's a dance competition for serious Memphis Gangsta Walkers and Jookin enthusiasts. The name may sound a little edgy, but if you missed Friday's show, then you missed this fun family team-up.
This video of Memphis being Memphis has been viewed more than 30,000 times since it posted to social media Saturday.
As if to highlight how insane things are on the right side of the dial, on his way out the door Spencer denounced his fellow "alt-right" excommunicate Milo Yiannopoulos, who went from rising star to "Who?" when some other smart person realized the controversial Breitbart journo advocated man/boy love. "I totally reject Milo and I’m glad that he was disinvited," Spencer said, making it abundantly clear, that even a no-account Jew-hating Nazi knows it's wrong to have GAY sex with children.
Watching all this barely figurative crap smacking the fan, it's tempting to believe there's a Republican reset happening— that Main Street conservatism's getting woke, chasing the rats out, and getting back to the business of bad business. But really it's just the same old gray suits slicking back their wildest hairs, and covering up the iron cross tattoos they picked up on some hazy Florida spring break, all those years ago. See kids, there's no such thing as an "Alt-Right." That's a buzzword used to describe a variety of rotten threads woven, not so loosely, into the broadcloth of contemporary American conservatism. As one of the internet's more influential early bloggers recently noted, mainstream Righties have been doing a perfectly fine job carrying the banner for "white nationalism, bigotry, contempt for the poor, corporate immunity, environmental destruction, rigid unequal gender roles, homophobia, [and] xenophobia" all by themselves. They don't need a bunch of blingy, goose-stepping cheerleaders with fancy haircuts.
I'm quoting the laconic Dr. Duncan Black (AKA Atrios), because the current hullabaloo reminds me, just a bit, of the wild and wooly days at the dawn of social media, when most fake news showed up in your inbox with "Re:Re: Re" in the subject field, and "citizen journalism" was a brand new bag. For some reason there was this broadly accepted idea that bloggers— especially political bloggers — in an effort to stay above the fray, should, "strive mightily but eat and drink as friends." We would meet in public places to hoist beers! We'd listen to listen to one another's well-reasoned arguments, and debate only the points we could support with hyperlinks. One problem with this idea: So many of the serious, open, modern, digitally savvy conservabloggers also carried the banner of white nationalism, bigotry, contempt for the poor, corporate immunity, environmental destruction, rigid unequal gender roles, homophobia, xenophobia," etc.
Somehow, inside this new Platonic ideal (tweely dubbed "the blogosphere"), anybody to the left of Reagan became a dangerous extremist. Liberal bloggers, like liberal politicians, were always described as being, "far out of step" with a Main Street better represented by conservative voices. Liberals were always America-haters, crippled by their inability to reach just far enough across the aisle to fall on their faces. They were shouted down, and shamed by Godwin's law for pointing out anybody's similarities to Hitler even, on rare occasions, when hyperbolic comparisons might also be instructive. Progressive impatience with racism, sexism, classism etc. was always attacked as another fine example of hypocrisy and "liberal tolerance."
That's where the goalposts were set, way back when, as legacy media stumbled awkwardly onto the Internet, and trolls discovered the joys of pooping in comments.
So what was a liberal blogger to do when one of his esteemed adversaries, whose bold ideas you're supposed to engage without resorting to the logical fallacy of ad hominem attack, writes a column about white feminism — an evil that has to be destroyed to insure pale-skinned beauties start getting pregnant younger, and more frequently. Because — as the post stated — we must, "fearlessly re-establish the hegomony of Euro-American WLD as rapidly as possible."
WLD=Western Liberal Democracy. None of these things were racist or sexist, of course. Or, it was unfair and intolerant to call it that. Or something. More from the post in question:
America thinks we're not experiencing this problem, but we are. The "native" population of white women are no longer reproducing at the replacement rate. Our nation's growth is coming from immigration, birthrates of immigrant populations, and the birthrate of African American women... we are in a clash of civilizations — Western liberal democracy v. Arab Muslim theocracy — and in a rush to get the Arab Muslim world converted to Western liberal democracy (WLD) before their numbers overwhelm ours... I'm finding myself becoming less concerned with high immigration than I used to be. (Though border control is very important!) What we need to do is reform feminism and its ills, reform how we approach abortion and pregnancy, and fearlessly re-establish the hegomony of Euro-American WLD as rapidly as possible. It's literally a fight for the future.
Obviously, the author was just another fringe element with an internet connection, right? Well, of course, but he also became a frequent contributor to, and online editor for The Main Street Journal, a now defunct glossy publication positioning itself — as the name suggests — as the respectable voice of "main street" Conservatism. Because, again, there is no fringe. There is only the Right.
This is a personal anecdote— just a memory from the glorious digital revolution, when news delivery was by god democratized! But this kind of thing happened everywhere, all over, and at every scale. Nobody mainstreamed scary, shocking values, scary, shocking values were already mainstream. They're still mainstream. It's just uncivil and intolerant to call it out. We should have beers and be considerate of one another's deeply-held values, instead.
So Richard Spencer the Nazi punching bag, and his gang-rape-obsessed frenemy Milo Yiannopoulos won't be hobnobbing at CPAC. Yay, I guess. But that's not really the story, is it? Because you cant revoke an invisible empire's credentials. And the shared values — all the little things that put these fine men on the marquee in the first place — those aren't going anywhere anytime soon.
The Internet makes everybody a know-it-all. But not your Pesky Fly. Because I know I'm clueless about so much stuff, I sometimes ask experts to enlighten me. This is what Miss Americross, Lindsey Alkire had to say about her favorite motorsport.
Fly on the Wall: I can't lie to you Lindsey. I don’t know anything about Arenacross.
Lindsey Alkire: I can tell you anything and everything you want to know about Arenacross.
Can you tell me what I’ve been missing?
Yes. Sell me on Arenacross. Make me a believer.
Well, Arenacross is the most intense motocross racing on the planet. We take the world’s fastest Arenacross competitors and we bring them into hockey-sized arenas like the Landers Center down in Southaven. What makes it exciting is it's condensed. We bring the thrill of outdoor motocross inside, so we bring the intensity up like 16 levels. Outdoor motocross tracks are about 2-3 miles. When you condense that down to an arena you go from 2-and-a-half minute laps to something like 20-to-25 second laps, but still keep all the same action. We have jumps, and turns, and a starting line and a finish line. You have a winner that's declared. And part of what makes it awesome is there are 16 riders out on the track at one time. A lot of racing that goes on, but no race is ever the same. There are always different competitors, and there's always gonna be different occurrences that happen — different crashes. These riders have a win-at-all-costs mentality. Because everything is a little bit more condensed there's minimal room for error. There's not a lot of places to make passes sticks so that's why passes can get a little aggressive.
You have to make your pass count and don't have a lot of time to do it because we have a 20 to 25 seconds a lap. You're only talking a couple of minutes for the main event. These guys’ adrenaline is through the roof. They have a very high heart rate when they're doing this. And one of the cool things about being inside these arenas that you can actually hear the fans cheering you on. As a fan, what I like most is you feel so close to the action. It’s right in front of your face. You can see absolutely everything is happening out on the track, and sometimes you wish you actually had three sets of eyeballs just to maintain every proportion of the track because there's so much happening.
I always wish that, actually. So what's your Arenacross story?
My story is pretty awesome. This is my life. I don't know anything other really then Arenacross. I started riding when I was eight years old. I'm 28 now, so it's been the majority of my life. 20 years, I've been involved. For me, it started off as a hobby. My dad and I both entered our first race when I was 11. I started traveling to amateur national races when I was like 14, then turned pro when I was 16, and toured the country racing in the women's professional series. When I was 19, I saw there was an opportunity to become the next Miss Arenacross. She’s the official spokesperson for the series. She did interviews. She was the floor announcer, and technically just the face of Arenacross. So I applied for that, and I got the job. I’ve been involved with Arenacross ever since. I'm so passionate about it.
Arenacross Racing at The Landers Center in Southaven. Friday, March 3, Saturday, March 4, Sunday, March 5 – Amateur Day
Tickets start at $15. For details, here you go.
Yes, “Wrecking ball.” That’s the expression Tennessee Senator Bob Corker used to describe President Donald Trump, in a recent interview for Politico. Corker’s intention was to describe the flailing President as a powerful leader wrestling with destructive foreign policy urges. He didn’t mean to make us all imagine what Trump might look like naked in a Miley Cyrus video.
So you're not that into Warhol, and the name Joe Dallesandro is unfamiliar? That's his crotch on the cover of The Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers LP. More of a Smiths fan? That's his torso on the cover of the band's first record. Lou Reed called him "Little Joe" in his hit song, "Walk on the Wild Side." You know Joe, or parts of him anyway.
Dallesandro, the only Warhol superstar to have any significant film career outside the factory, is coming to the Brooks Museum of Art to talk to fans. Fly on the Wall talked to him first about the Warhol/Morrissey trilogy Heat, Trash, and Flesh. working with Louis Malle, and Serge Gainsbourg, and what it means to be told you changed male sexuality on film forever. .
Fly on the Wall: When you first started working with Paul Morrissey, part of the allure — as I understand it — is Paul told you these films would still be shown in museums in a hundred years. I know it’s not been that long, but what’s it like living through the hype, and watching that promise, more or less prove true.
Joe Dallesandro: No, no surprise as it started appearing in the way he had said. It was kinda for me something I believed to be true back then, and it was beginning to happen. There was nothing I thought was real special because I always expected it to be that way. Having seen all the different work Andy had. And even back then he was doing tours at universities and things.
I felt that what he told me was the truth, and they were already doing tours at universities. So the next step was these things went to museums.
I read somewhere a quote by John Waters. Something about how you changed male sexuality on film forever. And so much else has been said in that regard. What’s it like living with those kinds of comments?
I always thought of Paul Morrissey as my mentor. Paul told me early on, I can't look at the press because if I take to heart the good and the appreciation, I have to take to heart the bad things, too." It was enjoyable to hear all that. But it was just the many opinions and sayings of people who were out there. I love John Waters. Anything he said was appreciated. I look at him as a personal friend. It’s not like I’d expect him to say something bad about me like Paul or Andy.
Why were they talking bad about you?
Back in those days, after I finished the trilogy with them I was pretty much kind of fed up for a while because they started to say bad things about me. I was being looked at in productions that were bigger and different than there’s in the real world. I remember reading somewhere that Andy’d said, “Oh, I think he does drugs.” And Paul told someone, “I don’t believe he could learn a script. So, when I went to do Frankensteinand Dracula with them, I made them write every line I had to say. Because it pissed me off they didn’t think I could do a script. I was never offered to do a script with them before.
But you hadn’t had experience with that kind of film. Or any kind of film, you just fell into it. Unlike a lot of the others who started this way, you put together a career.
It was Paul’s saying, he thought I’d be good at it. And just to do it. And everything he’s telling me— He’s like a book on cinema. He knew everything about actors and the movies. You could call him up and ask him anything and he had the information on it. So, when he’d say he thought I’d be good at it, I trusted what he was telling me was the truth. Back then I was a real young kid so people made impressions on me back then. Back then I wanted to be a cook and make pizzas. I wanted to own my own pizza shop one day. That was my big dream back when I was a kid. But things change.
I trusted what Paul was saying to me was the truth and I was getting a lot of press.
There were the movies I did with Paul and the movies that I did with Andy. Andy’s movies, whoever talked the fastest and the most was the lead in the movie. There was no story to it, it was just whatever was interesting to Andy that went in the movie. The first time I met him he was sitting behind a camera reading a newspaper and we couldn’t see him because he had the newspaper up. And he was turning the camera on and off. And you’d hear a giggle or a laugh from behind the newspaper, and then his hand would come out and he’d switch the camera on and off. Really strange, peculiar guy.
And an odd artistic partner for Paul, a number of people have noted.
Paul always was trying to shift him in a different direction in the way he made his films. To put more of a story to it. To use the people in a more interesting way. This is back when Paul had the greatest eye for casting, because he’d pick these peculiar people, and they were very interesting, and they had a knack for being able to tell stories and stuff. Until we went to Europe and he’d get people who just spoke to him briefly in English. Then, come to find out, they didn’t speak well enough to improvise their lines. So it was kinda good I said I wanted things written for me. They had to write things for the other people too.
And he’s shooting in an environment he doesn’t approve of.
He was always trying, in some way, to change those people. Get them to go in a different direction than what they were doing. He’d get really upset with Andrea [Feldman]. He wanted her to be normal. But Andrea was just Andrea.
Andy wouldn’t know my name when I came into the office. My brother was his chauffeur and drove him around all day long. Would come back telling me all these stories and conversations they talked about in the car. He chose who he talked to, who he spoke to and listened to. People I guess he thought were entertaining. And there were people that he didn’t. I was one of those people he didn’t speak to very much. I used to think he was just afraid of me. That’s why they had me up there guarding the door or something. I always got the impression they wanted me almost like a bodyguard, or somebody that scared people away: “Andy’s not here today.” When he’s here in the back.
But of everybody, you kept on making movies.
I went over to Italy with the idea I’d come back Clint Eastwood, but it didn’t happen that way. I was too short for a horse.
But you made some action movies.
I made all these shoot ‘em up films.
Did you know you were going to stay in Europe when you went over to do Frankenstein and Dracula, or did all that happen while you were there.
They were already offered to me by the time I finished Frankenstein and Dracula. Paul set it up so I’d do movies over there.
And I don’t know a thing about them— about the Italian films. They were like gangster films, right?
Bad boy gangster films. I’m the guy who was selling cigarettes for the higher ups, but then wanted to take over and do it for myself. They made a bunch of those lower budgeted ones over there. They would shoot them pretty fast. They were all like that, back to back. I swore off artists when I got to Italy. But the manager who helped me over there because Italian wasn’t my language, and I had to have somebody to interpret for me. I remember telling them I didn’t want to work with art directors. I just wanted to do shoot-em-ups/And he said, “No, no, no, no, you came from working with Andy, you have to continue working with art directors. So I continued working with art directors in France.
Louis Malle. Serge Gainsbourg.
Oh, yeah, Serge.
He was already established as a musician, but Je t'aime moi non plus was his first film, and he’s writing, and directing. And it just looks like everybody is comfortable, and having a great time. Is that just my impression, or is that accurate?
That’s accurate. I believe it was Serge. He had an openness about him. I didn’t know if it was because he drank a lot or what, but we all had a really great time doing the film. I became a good friend of Serge after that. I don’t usually stay connected, I move on. It’s family when you’re doing it, then you move on. That’s how it is in a film, you’re family. But Serge was a great guy.
Do you have a favorite film.
Oh, Je t'aime. When it was done, Serge wanted a bigger showing here [in America]. Not sent out to some odd theater. He wanted a big release. I believe it was a little too early. People weren’t there yet. But the material was great material. And it was beautiful to look at.
Yes, with the aerial shots. A really playful camera.
When I did Louis Malle film it was great to work on that too. When I saw the film, my son, who was still young, loved the it. He just loved it. So I saw it a couple of times. But I didn’t see the colors. We spent a lot of time with the lighting, and it wasn’t what I expected from his talent. But it was a fun film.
Je t'aime was certainly colorful. I think of the truck.
They asked if I drove a truck, and I was thinking a little pickup truck. I get there and it’s this big Mack truck with two gear shifts and air brakes. Holy shit. And the first shot they want me to drive up to a plate glass window with her behind and stop. And I thought everybody’s gonna run away because they don’t know if I’m going to stop in time. Our cameraman was one of the craziest, bravest guys I ever knew. There was a shot he wanted to do from a plane and he was hanging outside the plane to get the shot. That was just his way of doing things. And I loved Gerard [Depardieu]. He was doing a movie in Italy and would fly in on the weekends to shoot these small scenes with us. And he was so much fun. Everybody walked the extra mile to make the film look good, like it was in the midwest and shot in America.
It would be wrong of me to not ask something about. Sticky Fingers. The Smiths. Lou Reed and “Take a Walk on the Wild Side.” You didn’t even know Lou when he wrote about “Little Joe,” is that correct.
That’s correct. None of those things had nothing to do with me. With the Smiths album, [Smiths singer Morrissey] was a fan, and I don't think he asked anybody for permission. He just used the picture. Sticky Fingers, the crotch shot could have been anybody. The only reason I know it was me is because of my belt. With "Walk on the Wild Side," that was Paul Morrissey telling Lou he should watch some films they'd been doing and write about the people in them. He wrote about the character he saw on screen. It wasn't like he was socializing with us."
Vicki Lawrence doesn’t want Vicki Lawrence and Mama: A Two-Woman Show to be just a retrospective. The Carol Burnett Show alum, who had a hit single with, “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” and a hit show in Mama’s Family wants to bring her most famous character into the 21st-Century and let her comment on current events. She also wants to give fans everything they expect from Mama, and maybe a little bit more.
Fly on the Wall: I was a tour guide at Graceland, and know what It’s like to be asked the same questions over and over again. Are there questions you get so often you want to answer, “Can’t you just ask Google?”
Vicki Lawrence: Ha! Maybe. But maybe it’s like your kids wanting to hear the same story over and over again, you know? Or maybe they don’t believe it, so they really want to hear it from the horse’s mouth, if you will. That said, what’s the question?
Oh, that WAS the question. As an interviewer, I’m a little bit obsessed with how people experience interviews, particularly the questions that come up again and again. And between The Carol Burnett Show, which is iconic, Mama’s Family, which is ubiquitous, and having this career anomaly one-hit-wonder with “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” I suspect you get a lot of repeat questions.
Well, you know, when I put this show together I knew all the questions people asked me over and over again, so I made my half of the show — because I call it a two woman show — I made my half largely autobiographical, because it’s the questions everybody always asks. I know if we turned up the lights — I do questions like Carol — this is everything everybody would ask. So, the first thing I answer is how I met Carol and how I got started, and how I became a natural red head, how I only had one huge hit record, how I met my husband, how Mama happened. I think by the end of the Vicki half of the show people know more about me than they probably ever wanted to know. I don’t know what they’d ask.
That was my sense of the show.
Well, I also think my life has been pretty comical, and pretty serendipitous, so it’s kind of a funny half of the show. It’s pretty incredible what happened to me. It’s nothing I ever intended. And it’s funny, because I grew up in very close proximity to Hollywood, my dad worked in Hollywood, at Max Factor, the entire time I was growing up. That’s where I hung out and went to dance classes and worked. I was lucky enough to go see the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl when they first came around. It’s where I hung out. But it never occurred to me to go into show business. I was going to go to college, study dental hygiene, learn to clean teeth, marry a rich dentist. I kind of feel like I got kidnapped by show biz.
But you were always a performer, weren’t you? How old were you when you were doing [teen singing group] The Young Americans?
High school. And yeah, I do have all that too. I auditioned when I was a freshman. End of Freshman year and sang with them all through high school.
So it was always there but just for fun?
It wasn’t anything that ever occurred to me as something I might do for a living. Or maybe I didn’t think I was good enough. Or, I don’t know. So the whole thing has been a wonderful, strange adventure.
Thelma Harper is such a complete character. So distinct from you, and you have shared a body for a long time now. Do you turn Mama on and off like a light, or is she always lurking? I’ve always thought it would be great to have a little Mama — like a cartoon angel — that just rode around on my shoulder, complaining about things.
I know her so well. It’s very easy to pop in and out of that character. And I do find, as I get older that I probably think a lot more like she does. You earn the privilege to not waste as much time anymore so you just say what’s on your mind. And I kinda understand that as I get older. It’s like everything that’s going on in Washington right now. Do you think I’m going to live long enough to see the movie? It’s going to be a helluva movie.
I feel like I’m not as prepared for this interview as I should be because instead of doing my homework I keep having to check the news to make sure all of that’s real and not the result of a bad potato before bedtime.
But back to you. You do get sucked into Show business young. Were you doing Carol Burnett while you were going to college, is that right?
My dad was a UCLA grad, and it was always his dream that I would go there. We lived near UCLA and the deal was, “Of course you can go to college as long as you’re at the studio by 11-o'clock in the morning. So I took everything I could take at 7 a.m. and didn’t have much of a college life. I made it through two years and had to declare a major. Decided I’d declare theater arts because it looked like that was what I was going to do. Started studying that, but once you sign up they expect a quarter of crew work, and they expect you to audition for shows when they come up, and that’s when the Burnett show was the busiest. In the beginning we blocked on Friday, pre-recorded Friday night, shot on Saturday. So I couldn’t do it. I was hiding from everybody. I was the kid who would dash around the corner when the professor would say, “hey you!” So I went to my parents and said I needed to change my major, and so I changed it to dance. And that was so depressing in college compared with what I’d been learning in Hollywood. I used to take jazz classes from guys who were the Jets in West Side Story. It was cool. So I dropped out of that. So I went to my favorite theater professor and said, “What am I going to do?” He said, “You’re where every kid in this department would give their right arm to be. My advice: Get a pad and pencil and go learn from the best people in the business.” And that just broke my parents’ hearts. My mom never went to college so it killed her. Till the day she died she said I needed to go back to college and get a degree so I’d have something to fall back on if show business doesn’t work. But I felt like I had no choice. And it was hard not to learn from Harvey [Korman] and Carol just by osmosis. Just sitting and listening.
I bet. Was it unusual to everybody that you were doing school and the show at the same time?
Well, I didn’t do a whole lot on the Burnett show when I first started. Going to school and getting to the studio wasn’t a problem. People do it all the time now. You hear about movie stars that went to Harvard and Yale — I guess they weren’t doing a weekly television show.
Yeah. Time off between movies is a whole different dynamic.
But in the beginning I was hired to play her kid sister, and that’s really all I did for at least a season and a half. Then they slowly broke me into other sketches. So it’s not like I had a ton to do.
And Carol and Harvey were your mentors. They took you under wing.
Well, Carol had a show to run, so she had a lot to do. But Harvey, just being the team player he was, took comedy very seriously. And he was a trained dramatic actor. So he decided he would take me under his wing and make me a comedian. He would say, you can’t find stage right, stage left, you can’t even find the toilet. So he set about to train me. He’d work with me on dialects, and my props. And he’d explain to me who I was in those movie takeoffs when I didn’t know. It was great to have Harvey Korman for a tutor.
People make so much of Tim Conway’s antics. But the secret weapon was Harvey…
He made it work.
So you were 24 when you start playing Mama?
A Hollywood youngster, playing a much older Southern lady from circumstances very different from your own. How did you find her?
First, I played a lot of older women on Carol’s show. Mama wasn’t the first, she’s just the one that stuck. But you’ve got to remember, it was Carol’s show. So, when Carol was playing Shirley Temple, I was playing the mean old school marm. And, while she was playing Rebecca, I was the wicked old housekeeper. She was Snow White, I was the wicked witch. She was Red Riding Hood I was… I don’t know. Who was I in that? Anyway, I played a lot of older women on that show. So Mama wasn’t the first. She was written for Carol, and I tell this story in the show. I call it another gift from Carol. Because she didn’t want the part. She said, “It doesn’t speak to me, I want to be Eunice.” The writers were very upset. She went to Bob Mackie and said, “Don’t you think we should make Vicki Mama? He said absolutely and the writers were doubly upset. Then we got to rehearsals and she said she wanted to do it Southern. The writers literally walked out the first time they saw it. They said, “You’ve ruined it.” This was their baby. They came from dysfunctional upbringings, and they wrote this beautiful homage to their families and Carol ruined it. Of course, what we know is Carol really didn’t ruin it, she was right. Carol and I were doing an interview together, for extended features on a DVD, and, because some of our sketches could get pretty dark, she said she always thought it would be a good exercise for an acting class to take one of our sketches and play it seriously first, then go back and add the accents. I think that’s why she added the accents. She always said it was like Tennessee Williams on acid.
On something. I remember being young and seeing those sketches and they upset me. Everybody seemed so unhappy and angry. It wasn’t until I was a little older that I got how funny they are. I remember sitting down with the family to watch Carol Burnett — this was family entertainment. But in retrospect, a lot of it was pretty dark. Like a dwarf crushed by an elephant during an act of lovemaking. It was pretty adult stuff.
It was. And those were arguably Carol’s favorite characters. The writers couldn’t write those sketches fast enough. It was al very close to real life. Much more than anything else we did.
Mama’s costume — it’s almost like a uniform — is there one part you put on that makes you feel complete? I’ve always guessed the support hose.
The socks I rolled down because it reminded me of my grandma whose socks were always sagging. It is like a uniform. I can’t imagine not doing it in any part of it. I did go out without my glasses one time though. I reached up to touch them and was like, “Holy cow!” I didn’t say anything and the audience didn’t say anything. Maybe nobody noticed. But I felt naked after that.
I bet. These characters — Chaplin’s tramp, Groucho’s Groucho — you take away the cain or the cigar — you take away part of the identity.
Yeah, I know. And I get pictures every year of people who dress up like her for Halloween.
Did you feel right away, when you started doing this, that it was special?
We did. The writers walked out and did not. Said we ruined it. But you can tell when something’s really rolling when you’re doing it and it’s funny. They wrote it as a one time sketch, but it got so much positive fan mail.
Over time did the writers warm to the changes?
I’m not sure. I guess they did. We took the writers when we went to do Mama’s Family and they didn’t warm to those changes at all. We did two episodes and I said, “This is not funny.” This doesn’t feel right.” And I shut the show down and said, please, please bring Harvey in. And so we did and I asked Harvey, “How do we fix this, it doesn’t feel funny?” He said, “Well, it’s a sitcom now, sweetie. It’s got to be silly. You can’t expect people to pop a beer, come home every week, throw up their feet and watch this old lady scream at everybody for a half-an-hour. She’s got to become a sitcom star. She’s got to laugh.” I said, “But I don’t think she’s ever even smiled.” He said, “What have I taught you — you ARE her. She is YOU. Anything you can do, she can do.” He was really responsible for turning her loose, and turning her into the peacock she became. And there was nothing the writers could throw at me that she couldn’t do, anything. From running for mayor to learning to drive to dirty dancing to falling in love. Anything. She did it all.
I’ve got to talk about “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia.” I’ve got a friend who’d be upset if I didn’t. A 51-year-old man. Works out to your record— The first one. Knows every word to every song.
Oh. My. Well, you know I was married to the songwriter for like 10-minutes and “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” was the only good thing that came out of it. That and I got to keep the dog.
Does the fact that it was a troubled relationship change your relationship to the song?
No, the song took on a life of its own and was the ultimate demise of an already doomed marriage. It became this big huge juggernaut of a hit from the 70’s and you know— If you have one of those you have to sing it. And I feel okay. I got the last word, I was right. It WAS a huge hit. And I lobbied long and hard for the guy that arranged that record. His name was Artie Butler and he was on the charts with a number of other songs that I loved at the time. He was not the producer’s go-to arranger and they didn’t get along so great. But he was totally responsible for the way that song ended up sounding, but wasn’t called back in to do the album. I look back and think, “You don’t break up the winning team!” So the album I’m not proud of at all.It got done because it had to but it wasn’t the great experience of doing, “Georgia.”
How did you fit the music career in around the TV show?
I didn’t really have a music career. Back then, when this happened to me, you didn’t cross pollinate like you do now.
Unless you were like the Brat Packers.
But record stars didn’t really do Television, Television stars didn’t make records. Movie people were never on the small screen, ever.
And most of the ones that did happen, didn’t work.
Right. Now, if you’re not doing it all, and a line of makeup and clothing, you’re not doing it. Back then I’d do interviews in conjunction with the record and people would say, “Vicki Lawrence, where have you been?” I’d be like, “On the Carol Burnett Show for six years.” Or I’d have people call me Vicki Carr. “No.”
It seems so very separate. I wondered if, even then, people didn’t make the connection.
People come to the show who say, “I had no idea that was you.”
You mention that nowadays you have to do everything or you’re not doing it. You’ve obviously done the Disney thing working on Hannah Montana with Miley Cyrus. As a former youngster who had such incredible mentors, did you feel the urge to step into that kind of role?
Those producers on Hannah Montana set about to surround her with actors who were really good. Brooke Shields. Dolly Parton played her other grandmother. There were a lot of big stars on that show. And they would say. “She’s like a little sponge. We want to let her learn, so please impart your wisdom. It was a very nurturing environment. I remember the first day on the set we had a kitchen scene with a lot of props and we had to get something done during the scene. I used to love those scenes on Mama’s Family because our director would choreograph them like a dance. By the end of the kitchen scene you’d have something made, or in the oven. I’d associate my lines with my props, and it made it so much easier to learn. So we were having trouble getting something sorted out and I said, “Make your props your friend, Miley.” The first thing Harvey ever taught me. So we made it a little dance and it worked fine. Flash forward, four years later, I’m doing the last episode of Hannah Montana I ever did. And Mamaw and Miley are at a Tea Room and we’re all dressed up in our high heels. And I set my purse down in the middle of the table, and it just wasn’t working. I asked Miley what she did with her purse and she said, “I hung it on the back of my chair Vicki. Make your props your friends.”
We haven’t talked much about your show.
I'll share one of my favorite stories. When we first started doing it, we got booked in Laughlin, Nevada, which is about 90 miles from Vegas, and a world away. It's on the Colorado. Mobile homes. A much older crowd. So we're working this big casino there, and the fella that booked the show came down on the second or third night to say hi. We were all sitting in the dressing room talking — me, my husband, who produces the show, and my son, who directs it — and he asks, 'Would you like to know what the word is out on the casino floor?' And I said, 'Sure, what is the word on the casino floor?' He said, 'The word is, wear your Depends.' That's probably the nicest compliment I've ever gotten.
Although your Pesky Fly has been a Memphis resident since Reagan was in the White House, I do occasionally like to check in on news from back home. Especially news like this story of a man falsely accused by the police of carrying a carton of Newport cigarettes, a broken glass pipe, and a tire gauge in his anal cavity. Turns out (surprise, surprise) the arrest warrant was a bit off base. According to a report from the Montgomery County Sheriff's office, those items were all found on Jason Dondi Littleton. He was just carrying them in his clothing, not in his butt.
To give the officers the benefit of the doubt, this is also the facial expression I make when I'm trying to be nonchalant with 20 packs of menthols in the trunk.
From "alternative facts" to the claque of shills and yes-persons planted to energize President Trump's rambling address to U.S. Intelligence, it seems fairly evident that years of political punditry telling Americans the country should be run like a business, paid off with a chief executive who believes every piece of it.
I confess to a bit of shock that "alternative facts," a concept recently injected into the American conversation by Trump surrogate Kellyanne Conway, shocks so many people. It's like nobody with an internet connection has ever worked in marketing or advertising. AlternaFacts aren't some exotic Soviet-style plot. (Or, maybe it's better to say they aren't only an exotic Soviet-style plot). They're an American staple, as common as cornbread. Branding is unquestioned in business, and pervasive in government, no matter how adult and dignified. Anybody who's ever held a job marketing, even if that job was just making coffee and answering phones, can tell you, when the facts are unfavorable, it's time to roll out the new improved model. Good salespersons know language is incantatory— a witchy-sounding word for reality altering. Or, as the nonthreatening guy-in-an-ugly-sweater hired to lead trust exercises at the company retreat is more likely to put it, "Winners tell better stories."
President Trump made clear in a murky address, winning is the goal. Not achieving or progressing. But domination in trade and war. And Memphians know — or should know — what it means when Donald Trump wins. Now, instead of taking down Holiday Inn he's coming after NATO and the EU — realigning the axis because, as the man said, "to the victor belong the spoils." Plunder to the people! Or to the right ones, anyway.
Business serves brand interests and investment. Government serves people. Nothing's quite that cut and dry, but that's the general idea. When the screenplay gets flipped certain words get looked up in the dictionary. And we're not even a week into this horror movie.
Applause sizzles like a nice cut of meat on the grill. As a walking brand Trump knows instinctively what master salesman Elmer Wheeler preached to anybody and everybody who wanted to add to their bottom line — the sizzle sells shitty meat.
Some things are just true. The sun comes up in the east, water flows downhill, and Gilbert Gottfried is funny. Obnoxious too. Grating. He can say some inappropriate things. And yes, he's always in trouble. But like the old lounge comics he takes his cues from, he's got zingers. And he'll get you, eventually.
Fly on the Wall: I don't think I've never asked anybody this question before. Certainly not so early in the morning. But I saw this on social media and wondered — What was it like when you were on Celebrity Apprentice and Donald Trump grabbed your pussy?
Gilbert Gottfried: I was both shocked and flattered.
I suspect so.
I thought it was a little forward of him, but I was very impressed by his success.
How strange is it to have done that show with the soon to be President of the United States.
It's definitely surreal. I start thinking what that might mean anybody else whose shows I've been on. I mean, Jay Leno could be President. David Letterman could be President. It's a surreal time. But I remember when the election going on and it was him and Hillary. Out of the entire United States it comes down to these two.
This is what I've observed. And I could be wrong. But you really seem to enjoy what you do a lot. Is that a good act you put on, or is comedy still a lot of fun for you?
It depends on the day. Sometimes it depends on that particular 15-minutes of the day. Sometimes I enjoy what I'm doing. Other times, like when I'm going to another state to do another show, I feel like I'm Willie Loman lugging his suitcase around.
I've toured a little and know that Willie Loman feeling.
And it's a funny thing, especially traveling, going to the comedy shows. Whenever TV shows show a politician or a rock star screaming out "I love you Chicago!" and they're not in Chicago, it's always played for a laugh. I'm always like, "Yeah, I know exactly what that feels like."
Is there any part of it you like more these days? The stand up? TV? Voice?
I like doing voice overs. I liked when they had more sitcoms on the air. More so than reality shows, though reality shows have taken over. I liked when they used to call me up and just go, "You're going to be Jack the Plumber in this episode." That was much more easy and fun. It's funny, with the reality shows, which I was avoiding for the longest time, then I realized, that is TV now. And the amount of people who watch it is pretty incredible.
I'm with you. I remember thinking, this is a fad. It will be gone soon, nobody's really invested in watching this. Jokes on me!
Oh, yeah. After a while, before I said I'd do it, I started to feel like some old time stage actor who looks down on movies. And a funny thing happened too, when they were offering me these different shows, and I'd done one of those celebrity paranormal shows, which was pretty ridiculous.
I don't think I saw that one.
Well, you didn't miss anything. We're all — me and a group of other celebrities including former porn star Traci Lords — were in some abandoned insane asylum and the ghost of an insane serial killer is still there. And they gave us these ghost packs. It had some kind of thermometer there. And if one part of the room was one degree higher or lower than another part, that was proof of paranormal activity. Cause, you know, abandoned insane asylums are known for their temperature control. If there's a breeze coming in, that's obviously a ghost. So I'd say no to these things. I'd think, "I want to be in a movie with Robert De Niro." And then I started to realize, the Kardashians have a bigger audience than Robert De Niro. And two, I wound up with a very small part in a Robert De Niro picture recently. So I guess the whole business has totally changed.
You have a real knack for saying things that get you into hot water.
I thought I'd keep that out of the press.
But most of the time you turn it around and it works for you. Gift or curse?
Oh, God. Employment-wise, it's a curse. But I always feel like, whenever anything happens to me, I always think twice and do it anyway. Bad part is losing work and the internet goes nutty on you. But the good part is, sometimes when something happens to me that's some big controversy, it's almost like slapping a "new-and-improved" label on an old product. When people start saying, "Gilbert Gottfried's career is over, what I realized is, when your career's really over, people don't mention your name. If the top story of the night is your career is over, it means it definitely isn't over, or they wouldn't talk about it.
Perfect point of reference — the time you tell the 9/11 joke, lose the room, then, unlikely as it might seem, you win them all back by telling The Aristocrats. Which is a completely different kind of perverse. But the okay kind, I guess. And that's the model. You always turn it around. Except for maybe with Aflac.
There they got rid of me, got loads of free publicity for getting rid of me, then hired a guy who sounds just like me for a lot less money, thus bringing closure to a terrible tragedy.
I asked readers what they wanted to know about Gilbert Gottfried, and they all wanted to know about your voice. But everybody asks about your voice. What I want to know, as a man approaching 50 who squints a lot, can you recommend I good, yet affordable wrinkle cream?
No. I just go with all the other actresses for Botox. And I'm going to get chin implants put in.
You've been playing this character for so long, with the squinting and the voice — does it bleed in and out of daily life, or is it something you turn on and off like a light.
I can turn it on and off. And the weird part about it, I've found after doing it for so long, it's like I have two personalities. One's not more relevant than the other.
That's got to be fun for everybody. Are there signs friends and family know to look for to know which Gilbert they're getting.
In any case the less funny one. With the voice or not.
You're inspired by a lot of older comics. But where do you look for new material?
That's kind of weird because I don't really look for material. Sometimes something will hit me and and I'll go up on stage and try it out and it gets expanded. But I've never actually written anything down?
Yeah, and I have a horrible work ethic as far as the idea of sitting down and typing out bits and all that. So I'll have it all in my head and I'll think I'll do this bit or that. Then I realize I've been doing a bit so long I'll ask, "Hey, any of you watch Bonanza?" Sometimes if I've been doing a bit way too long I feel like, wow, I'm on autopilot now. I could be working out mathematical problems while I'm doing this.
You said Bonanza. So I've got to bring this back to your podcast. Just a great repository for fans of 20th-Century show business.
With me it's a suppository.
It's a pain in the ass?
Yeah. It's one of those things. Years ago there were these shows like Fantasy Island and theLove Boat. They'd dig up these people like you thought were dead, and then you saw them and thought, 'Hey, they're just as good as they ever were."
Setting a course for adventure.
I was originally going to call it "The Before It's Too Late show" and a couple of times that's happened. I've called a guest, they agree to do it, and the day before they die. We've had several guests up their in their 90s. A few of them, and they remember everything.
Any favorite stories?
Unfortunately this happens. When the mic is off all of a sudden they come up with a great story. Dick Van Dyke told me, off mic, in school his nickname was Dick Nose. Whenever the teacher would ask a question and say, "Who knows the answer," all the other students would say, "Dick knows, Dick knows!"