Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Laughter in the Night: Late Night Autobiographies

Given that I subtitled this blog "Things Best Viewed After Midnight," it should come as no surprise that I've been an insomniac since I was a kid. Late night television kept me company on many sleepless nights. A couple of books by late night TV icons drew me back in time, when the world after Midnight seemed deep and mysterious to a young kid.

We'll be Here for the Rest of Our Lives by Paul Shaffer

After 30-plus-years of being David Letterman's bandleader, some might not remember that Paul Shaffer was more than just a second banana. Grounded in musical theater and strip-joint gigs, Shaffer would later become a member of the original Saturday Night Live house band. He also had enough comedy improv training to appear on the show in sketches. He helped assemble the Blues Brothers band, only to be pushed out and off the Blue Brothers movie by John Belushi. Eventually recruited by Letterman to be musical director for Late Night, Shaffer would eventually come to be a late night television fixture.

Shaffer's book is an interesting, if unfocused, glimpse into a varied life. Enamored of the trappings of show biz, the "schmaltz" and "sleaze" of Vegas lounge acts and the Jerry Lewis Labor Day telethon, Shaffer would eventually take on a suitably faux-"hip" persona, with flashy suits and bizarre eyewear. While it is all interesting, Shaffer keeps the reader at arm's length for much of the book. I never quite felt like I was getting into his head. He does wax poetic about his love for music, and there is no doubt he is close to his friends - among whom are numbered Martin Short and Harry Shearer - and family, but there is not much depth plumbed here. Events come and go, and Shaffer reacts, but it all passes by in a blur, with the narrative jumping back and forth in time, much like listening to an interesting but slightly scatterbrained friend telling stories.

One common theme that keeps cropping up with Shaffer is the "pressure of time." Dealing with some of his boyhood idols - Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Sammy Davis Junior - Shaffer finds himself caught between the fluid concept of time as adhered to by the artistic temperament, and the hard-stop scheduling of television programs. Shaffer seems to be casting himself as a lesser talent, one too concerned with precise timing, rather than letting the flow of the music go where it will. In this, he seems too hard on himself: these idols of his can come and go as their whims take them; he has to put together precisely-timed performances every night without fail.

Oddly, Letterman and his show only get occasional mention. There is clearly affection there, but Shaffer seems reluctant to delve into his Letterman show career. Whether this is due to simple respect for his "boss," as he calls Letterman, a pragmatic reluctance to infringe too much on his ongoing gig at the Late Show, or a combination of both, is left up to the reader to suss out.

Still, it's an engaging book, and a quick read. Shaffer is self-deprecating, yet confident in his abilities. His book helps fill in a little of the background of two TV shows - Saturday Night Live and Late Night with David Letterman - that helped define some of what I mean when I refer to things best viewed after Midnight.

Big Chuck! by Chuck Schodowski

Anyone living in the Cleveland area from the late 1960s until the 2000s would almost certainly know of local Friday night channel 8 mainstays Hoolihan and Big Chuck, and later, Big Chuck and Li'l John. Their combination of shoestring-budget skits and horror movies dominated the scene for decades. Eschewing the common trope of make-up-and-costumes that so many monster-movie hosts take on, Big Chuck and his successive co-hosts Hoolihan, who left the show in 1979, and Li'l John, who took over the co-hosting duties from 1979 on, somehow managed to endear themselves to generations of kids and adults. Big Chuck retired in 2007, but he still continues to host a Saturday-morning show with Li'l John.

Big Chuck! covers Chuck's life, of course, but especially the 47 years he spent in Cleveland television. He gained a good measure of fame in the region, but never aspired to anything more than that. He frankly admits to enjoying being a big fish in a small pond.

As a long-time fan, especially as a kid and a teen, this book gave a lot of depth to a show that even today informs my idea of what late night creature features should be like. It's all endearingly mundane, with Chuck and crew cobbling together shows and skits with spit and bailing wire, criss-crossing the state week-after-week with a traveling band of misfits for personal appearances and various softball, football, and basketball games, all the while fending off bosses determined to mess with or cancel the TV show. Chuck never seems jaded by any of it, and in fact retains a sense of humor and sense of duty to the fans across the decades. It adds up to what seems like a grueling, neverending schedule to me, but Chuck never seems fazed.

A good chunk of the book is devoted to something of a mini-biography of Ghoulardi, the late-night movie host that pre-dated Big Chuck's show. Chuck worked on the show, first as part of the TV crew, then drafted against his will as onscreen talent. Ghoulardi was a phenomenon in the early 1960s in Cleveland, and even today retains a cult following. Ernie Anderson was Ghoulardi's real name, and he would eventually become a successful voiceover announcer, the voice of ABC for decades. Anderson died in 1997. Notably, especially to younger readers, his son is Paul Thomas Anderson. Chuck's description of Ernie Anderson reveals a bigger-than-life personality, chaotic and iconoclastic, with the world as his stage.

Big Chuck's show was important to me for a few reasons. It created a sense of camaraderie among its viewers with its deeply local focus; Cleveland and the surrounding region became something of a character itself, which we didn't see on TV much at all. The skits were so threadbare and makeshift that they seemed relatable in a way that slickly-produced shows can't be. Perhaps most importantly, and something Chuck doesn't really go into at all, the show introduced me to a plethora of old horror, mystery, and science fiction movies, from Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes flicks and Charlie Chan movies, to Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein, to The Hypnotic Eye and Cult of the Cobra, to W.C. Fields comedies, to Silent Running. Not knowing how TV stations do their programming, I'd always assumed that Big Chuck and his co-hosts chose the movies they showed. Now, I know that is almost certainly not the case; they were likely given packages of movies. Still, some movies did seem hand-picked, with Chuck praising W.C. Fields back when his show had My Little Chickadee scheduled. But, none of this is discussed in Chuck's book. It isn't a glaring omission, but it would have been nice to have some insight into that aspect of the show.

Big Chuck! was a satisfying book. Chockful of anecdotes and insights into being a local celebrity who also had to hold down a full-time job, the book is also charming in its direct, simple approach. Chuck seems like a nice, solid guy. His background working in a foundry in Cleveland of the 1950s provides insight into an era of Cleveland history which seems long gone now. He also has a bit of a gruff, pragmatic, yet profoundly open-minded take on political correctness. All in all, the book takes the reader into the trenches of local television production, and shows just how hands-on and human it all is.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A memory of moonlight, long forgotten: Minas Ithil

From the spider-haunted pass of Cirith Ungol we go now to Minas Ithil, the Tower of the Moon. A city as great as Minas Tirith, it guarded the way into Mordor through the Ephel Duath. Perhaps the nightmarish presence of the Land of Shadow so close tinged the dreamy Gondorian city with a touch of darkness, as well as infusing it with a need for beauty to contrast the horror.
The Tower of the Moon that dominates the city, once a gleaming symbol of peace and beauty. Centuries later, it would be a menacing presence for Frodo and Sam as they attempted to slip into Mordor.
The Tower of the Moon was the ethereally beautiful counterpart to the stalwart Tower of the Sun. Both were bulwarks of Gondor, anchoring the realm and guarding the Gondorian capital of Osgiliath throughout the long centuries. Plague and civil war weakened Osgiliath, and it declined into empty ruin, leaving its guarding cities on their own. Then, fatefully, Minas Ithil, the Tower of the Moon, fell to Mordor's shadow and became Minas Morgul, the Tower of Black Magic. Minas Anor, the Tower of the Sun, then became Minas Tirith, the Tower of Guard, the last and greatest hope for the Free People of Middle-earth. Before Minas Ithil fell, though, it was a vibrant, creative place, a moonlit contrast to the bright warrior-city that took the name of Minas Tirith.
Queen Mirien has decided to make Minas Ithil her personal domain after continued friction with her husband, King Tarondor.
This book details Minas Ithil before it fell to Sauron's forces. It's an interesting place for those who enjoy urban adventures, and is detailed well. The culture of the city is laid out, with attention given to guilds, social strata, spirituality, education, and intrigue. This is a city of learning and art, and space is even devoted in the book to an overview of poetry in Minas Ithil. It also contains one of the few remaining Seeing-stones, or Palantir, that remains to Gondor. Minas Ithil is a living place, though the Great Plague has recently swept through Middle-earth, and while the city has weathered it better than many other places in Gondor, the weakening has begun that will allow the Witch-king to conquer the city centuries to come. The corruption is there, if subtle.
The marble buildings of Minas Ithil stand bravely, but a shadow already creeps within the city.
The book offers a variety of sites within the city for characters to visit, from dive taverns to universities. In this respect, it's one of the better city supplements I've seen for a roleplaying game. The only criticism I can offer happens to be a major one: Iron Crown Enterprises had already published a major city supplement a few years before. Minas Tirith had been given the hardback treatment, detailing the most famous of Middle-earth cities. While Minas Ithil is a much different place, there is a feeling of sameness here. The opportunity was there for a much more dangerous adventure site to be detailed. Minas Morgul would have made an even greater contrast to Minas Tirith.
A portion of Minas Ithil, the city, with Tower of the Moon itself labeled #4.
Perhaps ICE felt that Minas Morgul was the kind of site that would see little use in a game, and if so, then I can understand that reasoning. It would be an incredibly dangerous place for the player characters to attempt to slip into before the War of the Ring. Teeming with evil, the domain of the greatest of the Ringwraiths, instant death would be at hand for most of the Free People. Still...such danger is part and parcel of roleplaying game adventures. The prospect of such a huge, open adventure site would hold an allure for many adventurers. Spy missions involving infiltrating the city are an obvious opportunity for derring-do for those with ice-water blood. After Sauron's fall, Minas Morgul would have been an immediate target of King Elessar, opening up a whole campaign's-worth of adventures as the remnants of the Dark Lord's forces rush to any bastion that remains to them. Sieges, pitched battles, and building-to-building fighting in a city dominated by complete evil for a thousand years, still possessed of macabre secrets, and so infused with corruption that the King of Gondor would have it razed completely, sounds like a lot of fun.
All that said, this is still an outstanding game book, taken on its own. With some adjustment, it could be placed in other settings, or even converted into Minas Morgul. The details provided, from climate and ecology to court intrigue and hidden spider cults, are all interesting and worthwhile. In any other game or setting, it would be considered a classic. It still is a classic, but is overshadowed by its sibling city, Minas Tirith, both as a publication and as a place, and by the city of black magic that it would become. But, that may be my own lingering disappointment than anything else. Setting that aside, Minas Ithil is one of the better MERP books published.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Along came a spider: The Tower of Cirith Ungol and Shelob's Lair

"There agelong she had dwelt, an evil thing in spider form[...]she was there, who was there before Sauron, and before the first stone of Barad-dur; and she served none but herself, drinking the blood of Elves and Men, bloated and grown fat with endless brooding on her feasts, weaving webs of shadow; for all living things were her food, and her vomit darkness." - The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter VIII: Shelob's Lair

When the world was young and the fallen Vala, Morgoth, began his schemes to rule over or destroy Middle-earth, he found an ally in Ungoliant, a great, shadowy spider from a time before the world was created. Down through the long years, Ungoliant's brood infested the desolate places of Middle-earth. From the dense heart of Mirkwood to the borders of Mordor itself, spiders of a size and intelligence seen only in the nightmares of our world wove their webs. In the time of Bilbo and Frodo, there still lived descendants of Ungoliant herself. In the Ephel Duath, the Fence of Shadow that looms on the Western edge of the shadowland of Mordor, lived "Shelob the Great, last child of Ungoliant to trouble the unhappy world."

Sauron is an opportunist and a manipulator. The mighty Smaug and the horrific Balrog were not his servants, yet they anchored strategic areas for him. Whether they were drawn by some subtle influence of Sauron or not is unclear. As the greatest of Morgoth's servants, Sauron may well have drawn upon some glimmer of loyalty these beings felt for the master of them all, exiled into the Outer Dark. But his influence was not great enough to draw them forth into his armies; instead, they claimed realms of their own, content to rule what they had. Sauron's grand strategy was of no concern to them, but neither would they hinder it. It is a happy coincidence for him that these great creatures were in places that might have become strongholds against him. Or was it coincidence? The presence of Shelob in a critical pass into Mordor suggests even more strongly that Sauron could exert his will even on those unheeding of it.

Sam and Frodo's trek through the lair of Shelob imprinted itself on my mind from the first time I read it. Absolute darkness in a cave labyrinth is unnerving enough; finding that a true nightmare lives within it seized my imagination. Spiders are not among my favorite creatures in the first place; the thought of a giant one lurking in the dark, awaiting those rendered helpless by imposed blindness, was chilling, and still is. The taunting spiders of Mirkwood were a fairytale menace, and even little Bilbo could hew his way through them, at least when armed with the redoubtable Sting. Their mother, though, was no fairytale creature; she was pure night terror, mindless and driven by dark instinct. But, it was inspiring to find that Sting, the bane of her brood to the North, could also deal her grievous harm.

Tolkien did much of the work in creating iconic monster lairs in the fantasy genre with which we are now familiar. The great halls of Smaug's stolen domain in Erebor is a quintessential Dragon's lair. Moria is a classic Goblin haven, with the King Under the Mountain now a Demon of fire. And, of course, Torech Ungol, Shelob's foul nest, can be found echoed even in modern science fiction, manifesting as the hives of the cinematic Aliens.
A portion of Torech Ungol, Shelob's nest; consider walking through it in pitch darkness, with a foul stench and bits of webbing to confuse and confound you.

The Tower of Cirith Ungol and Shelob's Lair is a Middle-earth Roleplaying adventure of the first order. Set over thirteen centuries before the time of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the book provides detailed overviews of the climate, flora, and fauna of a relatively small part of the Ephel Duath. Interestingly, the time period is one in which Gondor still keeps a watch in force on Mordor, with a garrison in Cirith Ungol, and the city of Minas Ithil still centuries from falling to Sauron's forces and becoming the evil city of Minas Morgul. Orc tribes lurk in the area, Hill Trolls can be found, and, of course, there are Spiders of all sizes, up to and including Shelob herself. There are notes on using the area and tower of Cirith Ungol after it has fallen to Sauron, so it wouldn't take much work to make this book usable in any era. In fact, it could be used to show the area after Sauron has fallen, and Aragorn, now King Elessar, has sent forces to retake and man Cirith Ungol as Minas Morgul is retaken and destroyed.

Shelob herself is detailed using the Middle-earth Roleplaying (MERP) game system, and she's pretty horrible, as you might expect. Her lair of Torech Ungol is shown to be twisting and confusing, perfect for getting player characters lost. The great Spider herself is described as being literally a Demon, which makes sense given her ancestry. She is also described as having numerous magical abilities, which, at first, I wasn't too keen on - she never demonstrates anything like them in Tolkien's book - or so I thought. Looking more closely at the sequence in Tolkien's book, though, most, if not all, of these abilities can be rationalized as innate abilities used by way of pure malevolent instinct. They mostly deal with Shelob being able to resist damage and frighten her prey. The latter seems like overkill, since a Spider of her size is automatically guaranteed to scare the waybread out of those unfortunate enough to encounter her. However, considering the thick darkness that defies even the Phial of Galadriel, and the choking horror that seems to lurk about the place, attributing much of it to Shelob's supernatural essence as a Demon seems more than reasonable to me.

This is a particularly solid entry in the MERP line. It resembles classic Dungeons & Dragons adventures in its focus and its underground exploration. Actually, it's more correct to say that Dungeons & Dragons adventures resemble it, because the entire sequence of Shelob's lair in The Lord of the Rings almost certainly had a good deal of influence on D&D in its early incarnations.