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Fonzie of the Week #11: Linus Van Pelt

October 31st, 2009 5 comments

Linus Van PeltIn honor of Halloween, I’m using the Fonzie of the Week to honor the one guy who sticks up year after year for the Great Pumpkin: Linus Van Pelt. Linus has long been the wise old rabbi of the Peanuts gang; mature beyond his years and loyal to a fault. He’s not as flashy as Snoopy or as distractingly pathetic as Charlie Brown, so this blanket-toting hero often goes unnoticed amid the wonderfully vibrant clinical disorders of his schoolyard chums. But he’s terrifically cool, and totally deserving of my blog’s little weekly honor.

There are easily a hundred reasons why Linus is super cool, and though it’s not season-appropriate, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention his speech in the Charlie Brown Christmas Special. I find this little bit of soliloquy to be emotionally stirring in a completely secular way, despite its completely faithful retelling of the religious Christmas story – pregnant virgin and all! In today’s polarized politico-religious climate, that’s no small feat. Zealots on both sides of the political spectrum could do well to take a page from Linus’ playbook. You heard it here, folks: if Linus were a Congressman, we’d have a bipartisan solution to the healthcare debate by now. And yes, it would have a public option. That’s just how he rolls.

Here’s an underappreciated fact about Linus: he’s a kick-ass letter-writer! I observed his mad skills in action while watching It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown earlier this week. In his efficient and effective letter, he makes no bones about his intentions toward the Great Pumpkin (the acquisition of presents), and yet he manages to avoid coming off as an opportunist. He also makes a savvy observation about Santa’s superior P.R. department. For your consideration:

Dear Great Pumpkin,

I am looking forward to your arrival on Halloween night. I hope you will bring me lots of presents. You must get discouraged because more people believe in Santa Claus than in you. Well, let’s face it…Santa Claus has had more publicity. But being number two, perhaps you try harder. Everyone tells me you are a fake, but I believe in you.

P.S. If you really are a fake, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.

You gotta love that postscript. It’s a nod to wisdom as old as time: know thyself. Lately I find myself wanting to write that precise letter to Barack Obama. And Linus wrote this letter more than 40 years ago, which leaves me wondering: does Linus have the gift of precognition? Will he be the Nostradamus of the 22nd Century? I say yes. And he’s way more approachable than the original. He’s like the Buddy Jesus of fortunetellers.

Also, it bears noting that Linus is a chick magnet: Sally Brown goes straight-up crazy for the boy. But he’s a gentleman who knows that your best friend’s sister is off-limits. Way to be, L-Dawg. You just keep on being you. I’m sure the rest of us will catch up soon. And when we do, blue security blankets will be the must-have accessory strutting across runways all over the world.

Happy Halloween, everybody!

Fonzie of the Week #10: Richard Heene (a.k.a. the Balloon Boy’s Dad)

October 19th, 2009 75 comments

Richard HeeneSelecting this week’s Fonzie was quite an adventure. I originally considered making the Balloon Boy himself the Fonzie of the Week, back when we all thought he was up soaring the wild blue yonder – or possibly dead from falling out of the balloon. And then we all found out that he wasn’t in the balloon at all. What a letdown! Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad the kid is safe. But you don’t become Fonzie of the Week by not engaging in crazy and/or dangerous stunts. You become Fonzie of the Week by contributing to the delinquency of a minor as part of an elaborate and poorly thought-out hoax. It’s actually very Fonzie-like if you think about it: can’t you just imagine the shenanigans Fonzie and the gang could get themselves into with a hot air balloon? In recognition of his sitcom-worthy scheme and the criminal charges soon to be leveled against the Balloon Boy’s father, I’m naming Richard Heene Fonzie of the Week.

Now most people are going to miss the forest for the trees and waste a bunch of time going on about how Heene is a terrible parent who is exploiting his children in a lame attempt to grab some attention and somehow turn that attention into reality TV stardom. All of that may be true, but take a moment to appreciate the sheer absurdity of what he’s created! It’s really quite brilliant; sort of a cross between Dadaism and Warhol’s “15 minutes of fame” concept. Trust me, in 20 years performance artists will be studying Heene’s every skillful move. Consider if you will:

  • Heene named his son “Falcon,” which suggests that he’s been plotting some sort of high-altitude hijinks for this kid since birth. Very Andy Kaufman. We probably won’t really appreciate the scope of this hoax until 2018.
  • Look at this crazy flash animation that was put up on the homepage for The Science Detectives, a video series Mr. Heene has been involved in for years. Very impressive, in a first year art student sort of way.
  • Upon supposedly learning that his beloved son was soaring away in a weather balloon, Mr. Heene didn’t call 911; he called the local television news station. Some will say this is evidence that the whole scenario was a hoax. But they’re missing the point. He’s making a statement on who we really consider to be our heroes and saviors in the 21st century. Screw the police…Save us, Brian Williams!
  • Dude lists his profession on MySpace as “Science Detective.” I didn’t even know that was a real job until now. Just don’t tell him about CSI. It might break the poor guy’s heart.
  • He actually went on YouTube wearing a bra, in what one can only assume is an homage to the late, great Benny Hill. As progressive as Heene’s art is, he remembers to acknowledge the old masters. What a guy!

Here’s what it all comes down to: keeping in mind that Mr. Heene’s ultimate goal was reality show stardom, the true genius of the Balloon Boy episode lies not in the hoax itself, but in the resulting hoopla and his inevitable arrest. Heene might be insane, but he’s not stupid. Baby Jessica didn’t get her own reality show, and the Balloon Boy won’t either. But getting yourself arrested for pretending your son flew away in a spaceship-looking balloon you built in your garage? Mr. Heene couldn’t have done better if he got himself pregnant with Jon Gosselin’s octuplets…and I’m not sure he wouldn’t try. Richard Heene the concerned parent is a nobody, but Richard Heene the crazy wannabe scam artist is reality show gold! I promise, he’ll have his own show inside of a year. And I promise, it’ll suck big time. But you and I will both watch it at least once, and it’ll make some TV executives a boatload of cash. U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!

Mr. Heene, I dub thee Fonzie. You might be batshit crazy, but your high level of media savvy is enviably cool, if slightly frightening. I bet your blog would have a million readers by now, but I still think I’ll try to do it the old-fashioned way. I don’t even have a weather balloon or a kid, so I really have no choice. At any rate, I hope you enjoy jail. I’ll be sure to tune in to your behind-bars Dateline NBC interview.

Introducing the Subby Awards!

October 15th, 2009 No comments

I live and work in New York City, so I spend at least an hour every day in some part of the subway system. And as anybody who’s been to New York can tell you, there are some things you only see in the subway…or at least there are some things you only see in the subway if you don’t belong to some wierdo cult. Either way, for a blogger who writes about things that are cool not to take advantage of the treasure trove of awesome source material that I encounter regularly on the A train would be a travesty.

Of course, I could just write about the amazing things I encounter riding the rails and call it a day. But the way I see it, New York’s freaky subway encounters are better than all other freaky subway encounters, so I’m going to show some hometown pride and hand out some awards. I’ll always include photographic evidence of just what makes a Subby winner so grand. (I mean, let’s face it, this whole thing is pretty much just an excuse to put up some wacky photos and comment on them.) And I’d like to see this turn into an interactive thing, so if you see something truly amazing on the subway, snap a picture and email it to me. I’ll be sure to give you credit for your Subby nomination and photo.

So, without further ado, I am pleased to bring you the first ever Subby award, courtesy of my local A train stop at 181st Street:

Best Use of Googly Eyes in Support of Vandalism

Best Use of Googly Eyes in Support of Vandalism

This video game looks like it could be quite good, but its subway ad is a little scary for general audiences. Thankfully some industrious young ne’er-do-well added fun stick-on googly eyes, and maybe now it won’t give the kiddies in my ‘hood nightmares. If only knife-wielding assailants were this hilarious in real life.

Fonzie of the Week #9: Tim Schafer

October 13th, 2009 1 comment

Tim SchaferPardon me while I let my inner video game nerd out, but if you grew up (as I did) playing adventure games, then you should already know why Tim Schafer is as cool as they come. And even if you don’t know who he is, you still owe him a debt of gratitude, because the odds are that your favorite video game designer does. For his outstanding contributions to the art of video game design as a storytelling medium, I’m pleased to name Tim Schafer as Fonzie of the Week. And since I lazily skipped naming a Fonzie for the last two weeks (sorry!), let’s just go ahead and make him a triple Fonzie – yep, he’s just that cool. (Note to self: remember to invent a saucy definition for “Triple Fonzie” on Urban Dictionary. Oh, the possibilities!)

Had this blog existed anytime in the last 20 or so years, I would still be able to call Schafer “Fonzie,” because he’s been crafting genre-expanding games since 1990. But he’s specifically this week’s Fonzie because he’s releasing his newest game, Brütal Legend, today. (That’s also why this post was published on a Tuesday instead of last Friday…that and the aforementioned laziness.) I tried the game’s demo last night, and it was a terrific experience that leaves me really excited to see how the final product plays. The demo exhibited all the trademark humor Mr. Schafer’s games are known for, and like previous Schafer titles Full Throttle and Grim Fandango, Brütal Legend takes a theme – in this case, heavy metal culture and art – and lovingly takes it to hilarious extremes. With Full Throttle the theme was biker culture, with Grim Fandango it was film noir and the Mexican Dia De Los Muertos, and with Brütal Legend the story and characters revolve around the golden era of heavy metal (hence the umlaut) – which as the game suggests, seems to have ended:

“You ever feel like you should’ve been born earlier? Like when the music was real?”

“Like the seventies?”

“Earlier. Like…the early seventies.”

In addition to the games I’ve already mentioned, Mr. Schafer has played key roles in the development of a number of classic adventure games, from the NES port of the iconic Maniac Mansion (the NES port was my first foray into the classic LucasArts canon of games) to helming its superior sequel Day of the Tentacle. He co-wrote the recently revived (via Xbox Live Arcade and iPhone) Secret of Monkey Island. He was also the creator of the critically acclaimed Psychonauts, which I ashamedly admit I’ve never played. I should note that that game is available as a direct download for Xbox360 owners, but since I prefer to buy games on physical media, I’ll have to wait until somebody puts it up for trade on SwapTree. Just last fall I replayed Full Throttle on my PSP using the open-source ScummVM, and that game – like all of Mr. Schafer’s games – is still as clever, challenging, and just plain fun as ever. And unlike other games that rely heavily on technological advances or controversial elements to distinguish themselves (I’m looking at you, Doom), Mr. Schafer’s games age remarkably well. An evil mutant tentacle bent on world domination will always be funny. Or at least it will if Tim Schafer writes it.

As alluded to at the beginning of this post, I personally see Mr. Schafer as more of a storyteller than anything else; video games are his medium of choice, but I believe he’d be a master storyteller regardless of his profession. Had he never used a computer, he’d still be inventing wonderful tales through more traditional means – or at the very least, doing a terrific job of entertaining his friends at the bar.

I’ve played a lot of video games, and while blasting aliens can be fun and all, the games I really remember are the ones that tell a good story, make me laugh, and force me to use my brain instead of (or at least in addition to) my trigger finger. I believe that video games present a new and largely untapped frontier for the art of storytelling. I further believe that Tim Schafer is a trailblazer who has made a career out of exploring that frontier. He’s super cool, and definitely has earned the right to be Fonzie of the Week. You should buy his games. Brütal Legend is in stores now, but many of his older games won’t be found in stores. Do yourself a favor and track them down online. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

One last thing: Just to clarify, Tim Schafer (who created Brütal Legend) is a master storyteller who is now officially certified cool. Electronic Arts (who published Brütal Legend) is a corporate behemoth that is publicly traded on the NASDAQ. Corporate behemoths are not generally considered cool enough to be Fonzie of the Week, but a free copy of Brütal Legend might help. A little bribery is good for the soul, EA. What’s one free game compared to the awesomeness of an obscure blog likening you to a 70’s TV icon? You know what to do, EA. I look forward to receiving your package in the mail.