Chris Matheson, “Bill & Ted” Writer, Talks Cosmic Satire with Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #65

Chris Matheson has written a bunch of comic movies including the new Bill & Ted Face the Music, and he’s converted religious texts into funnier books on three occasions, most recently with The Buddha’s Story. Your hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt talk with him about what unifies these projects: Why the big ideas of science fiction, fantasy, religion, and philosophy are begging in a similar way to be made fun of.

We get into the big questions: How does humor relate to fear? Would a society based on Bill and Ted (or Keanu Reeves) actually be desirable? How bad is the evident literal absurdity of many religious texts? Plus, the B & T joke that has not aged well, and much more!

A few articles that we found but didn’t really draw on included:

Learn more at prettymuchpop.com. This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts.

A Virtual Table Read of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Featuring Jennifer Aniston, Morgan Freeman, Shia LaBeouf, Sean Penn, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, John Legend & More

If you will forgive a gross oversimplification, there are two kinds of people in this world:

Those (like me) who, having seen Fast Times at Ridgemont High the night before the first day of their senior year of high school, made sure to pack carrots in their lunchboxes, and those who were too young to see it in its original release, possibly because they hadn’t been born yet.

For those of us in the first group, Feelin’ A-Live’s #FastTimesLive, a virtual table read of the script for Cameron Crowe’s 1982 semi-autobiographical teen sex romp, is a bit of a tough sell, even as a fundraiser for two good causes: the COVID-19 relief organization CORE and REFORM Alliance, which is dedicated to criminal justice reform and staunching COVID-19’s spread within the incarcerated population.

It’s kind of a mess.




Possibly we’re just crabby from all the Zoom performances we’ve watched and taken part in over the last 6+ months.

Were we supposed to be charmed that this live, unrehearsed performance featured A-list movie stars, bumbling through like regular Joes circa April 2020?

Ray Liotta, reprising the late Ray Walston’s authority figure, Mr. Hand, is hamstrung by his old school paper script, ensuring that most of his lines will be delivered with downcast eyes.

Julia Roberts, as 15-year-old heroine, Stacy, is winsomely fresh, but out of focus.

Is it this blurriness of the technical difficulties that caused the production, originally conceived of as a feature-length table read, to be re-packaged as a sort of highlights tribute?

(Roberts’ computer glitch appears to have been cleared up after organizer Dane Cook’s first interruption to encourage donations (currently standing at a $2,132, which is particularly disappointing given that the film took in $2,545,674 its opening weekend, in 1992.))

Jennifer Aniston, in the role originated by Seventeen model, Phoebe Cates, is predictably funny, and also brings professional quality make up and lighting to the proceedings, but it’s somehow unjust that her celebrity status excuses her face-obscuring hairdo. Actresses of her generation, lacking her star power, plying their trade on Zoom are invariably ordered to barrette up.

The technical problems were not enough to spare us from a reenactment of the film’s most notorious scene, in which Stacy’s older brother, originally played by Judge Reinhold, now brought to life by Anniston’s ex, Brad Pitt, fantasizes about Cates unclasping her bikini top, only to be barged in on enjoying an extremely private moment by the very object of those fantasies.

It’s at the 37 minute mark, FYI.

A fitting punishment for those of us who, remembering the tabloid headlines, eagerly focused on Aniston’s face as Pitt was being introduced.

It wouldn’t hold a candle to the now-problematic original, if Pitt weren’t blushing and Morgan Freeman weren’t reading the stage directions.

(“Do you want me to use my Lorne Greene sonorous voice or just read like I’m not here?”)

Many viewers picked up on the players’ seemingly cool reception of their castmate, Method actor, Shia LaBeouf, born four years after the original film’s release. In the role of surfin’ stoner, Jeff Spicoli, he was tasked with some very big shoes to fill.

It’s a tribute to original Spicoli, activist Sean Penn’s versatility that he wasn’t forever typecast as variants on his star making role. As the only member of the original cast in attendance (as well as the founder of one of the designated charities), he alone seems to be enjoying the hell out of LaBeouf’s scene stealing antics.

Writer Crowe and director Amy Heckerling dish on his audition at the end of the proceedings, and in so doing shed some light on LaBeouf’s eccentricities, and the others’ wariness.

Even though the story conflicts, somewhat, with the casting director’s recollection below, we’re willing to take it on faith that LaBeouf’s fellows’ failure to clap for him is as much a part of the joke as Pitt’s game use of iconic headgear.

Dane Cook hedged his bets in deference to those who may not have lived through the period parodied by the film:

One more thing, before we start, the big disclaimer with a capital D, a whole lot of beliefs and language have changed since this came out, so don’t @ us, unless it’s to donate. Remember, it was a certain time and place, and the sentiments in the script do not reflect the people reading it today. They do reflect the fictional characters from an imaginary school in a totally make believe story, got it?

We get it!

The recasting with actors the same age as Jennifer Jason Leigh (Stacy) and Phoebe Cates remains a bitter pill, but perhaps it spares us all comments fixating on the ravages of time. Instead, we get to hear about the “timeless” beauty of Anniston and Roberts.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Charlie Chaplin & Buster Keaton Go Toe to Toe (Almost) in a Hilarious Boxing Scene Mash Up from Their Classic Silent Films

Coke or Pepsi?

Boxers or briefs?

Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton?

A difficult choice that usually boils down to personal taste…

In the case of the two silent screen greats, they evinced different personalities, but both were possessed of physical grace, a tremendous work ethic, and the ability to make audiences root for the little guy.




Their enduring influence on physical comedy is evident in the boxing scene mash up above, which pulls from Keaton’s star turn in 1926’s Battling Butler and Chaplin’s widely celebrated City Lights from 1931.

Even cut up and spliced back together in alternating shots, it’s a master class on building anticipation, defying expectations, and the humor of repetition.

Both films’ plots hinge on a mild fellow going to extraordinary lengths to prove himself worthy of the girl he loves.

Chaplin, besotted with a blind flower-seller, is drawn into the ring by the prospect of prize money, which he would use to cover her unpaid rent.

His opponent is played by Hank Mann, the brains behind the Keystone Cops period who went on to work with Jerry Lewis.

The pas de trois between the ref and the two boxers represents the pinnacle of Chaplin’s long affinity for the sport, following 1914’s Keystone short, The Knockout and 1915’s The Champion.

Battling Butler is built on a case of deliberately mistaken identity, after Keaton’s milquetoast rich boy impresses his working class sweetheart’s family by allowing them to think he is a famous boxer whose name he incidentally shares.

The fight scenes were filmed in LA’s brand new Olympic Auditorium, aka the Punch Palace, which went on to serve as a location for the more recent boxing classics Rocky (1976) and Million Dollar Baby (2004).

The editor who thought to score this mashup to Mariachi Internacional’s cover of Zorba El Griego is certainly a contender in their own right, but readers, what we really want to know is in this championship round between Chaplin and Keaton, who would you declare the winner?

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

If Werner Herzog Reviewed Trader Joe’s on Yelp: “Madness Reigns. The First Challenge Your Soul Must Endure Is the Parking Lot”

I like the Internet for various things, but it’s limited. I’m not on social media, but you will find me in the social media. There’s Facebook, there’s Twitters, but it’s all not me.

—Werner Herzog in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter

The night before his 2016 documentary Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World premiered at Sundance, director Werner Herzog declared himself “still a liberated virgin” with regard to his reliance on the Internet:

I think we have to abandon this kind of false security that everything is settled now, that we have so much assistance by digital media and robots and artificial intelligence. At the same time, we overlook how vulnerable all this is, and how we are losing the essentials that make us human. That’s my advice … Cook a meal at least three times a week. Play a musical instrument. Read books and travel on foot.

That said, he’s not immune to the rejuvenating effects of random cat videos at the end of a tiring day, as he told Studio 360’s Kurt Andersen during a promotional visit for 2018’s Meeting Gorbachev:

Perhaps guessing that Googling his own name is not one of Herzog’s preferred online activities, Anderson took the opportunity to hip his guest to comedian Paul F. Tompkins‘ Teutonic-inflected recitation of a notorious Yelp review of Trader Joe’s in Silver Lake.

To the untrained ear, Tompkins’ Herzog is pitch perfect.

The spoof’s subject suggested that the accent could use improvement, but agreed that the text is “very funny.”

And it is, especially given the pedestrian tenor of the same Trader Joe’s other 5-star reviews:

This is the best Trader Joe’s location I’ve been to! Been coming here since I was a kid! (I’m 25 now) I’ve moved out of this area but still come to this location just because it beats the rest of them. – Debbie G

TJ is the best!! I’ve been coming here for many years, and the food is great!! The employee’s are awesome! Some of the many things I love to purchase here are: salmon balls, smoothies like the chia seed strawberry, protein almond butter drinks, coconut smoothie, cashew yogurt, south western salad that comes in a bag is BOMB.COM! – Raymond M

Tompkins tapped Herzog’s fascination with man’s animal nature and the brutality of existence for another Yelp review, awarding three stars to San Francisco’s Hotel Majestic and attributing it to Werner H:

Tompkins clearly savors the opportunity to channel Herzog, logging 16 appearances for the character on the Comedy Bang Bang podcast, including episodes wherein he discusses working with Tom Cruise and his desire to be cast as a clueless suburban husband in an appliance commercial. Find them all listed here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Life, Work & Philosophy of Bill Murray: Happy 70th Birthday to an American Comedy Icon

Image by Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia Commons

“Bill Murray is to me what calculators are to math,” Jason Schwartzman once said of his esteemed colleague. “I never knew math before calculators, and I never knew life before Bill Murray.” Having been born in the 1980s, a decade Murray entered already well-known after three early seasons of Saturday Night Live, I could say the same. Through characters like Nick the lounge singer and half a nerd couple with Gilda Radner, Murray established himself on that show as a goofball, but a goofball of a higher order. As the 80s got into full swing, Murray got into the movies, and ever more prominent roles in the likes of CaddyshackStripes, and Ghostbusters assured him a permanent place in the pantheon of American comedy.

For those who cared to look, there has long been evidence of concentrated thought and feeling behind the deadpan impulsiveness of Murray’s onscreen persona: his supporting turn as Dustin Hoffman’s lemon-eating playwright roommate in Tootsie, his passion-project adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor‘s Edge, his post-Ghostbusters escape to the Sorbonne.




It was in Paris that Murray studied the work of the Greco-Armenian Sufi mystic G.I. Gurdjieff, who describes a path to enlightenment called “the way of the sly man,” one who makes maximum use of “the world, the self, and the self that is observing everything.” This concept, according to the Wisecrack video above, has become integral to Murray’s distinctive way of not just acting, but being.

That counts as just one of the theories advanced over the decades to explain the curious phenomenon of Bill Murray. The man has also been called upon to explain it himself now and again, as when an interviewer at the Toronto International Film Festival asked what it feels like to be him. His response takes the audience into a guided meditation meant to make everyone listening understand how it feels to be themselves, right here, right now.




Maintaining this sense of the moment, as Murray later explained to Charlie Rose, is one of the goals of his own life — and presumably not an easy goal to achieve for someone who’s been so famous for so long, a condition he addresses in the 1988 interview animated for Blank on Blank below. “I’m just an obnoxious guy who can make it appear charming,” he says in summation of his appeal. “That’s what they pay me to do.”

That same year, they paid him $6 million for his role in Scrooged (playing, incidentally, the most obnoxious character of his career). He’d already been cautioned against the dangers of such rapidly acquired wealth and fame by the fate of his fellow Chicagoan and SNL alumnus John Belushi, who by that time had already been dead for five years. Murray had also, he says, undergone a “spiritual change” that showed him “there was some other life to live. It changed the way that I worked,” giving everything “a different presence, a different tension.” Onscreen, this change culminated in the roles he took on after putting broad comedies behind him beginning with 1999’s Rushmore, the breakout feature by an up-and-coming director named Wes Anderson.

Casting Murray opposite the teenage Schwartzman, Rushmore showed that he could be more affecting — and indeed funnier — in minor emotional keys. A few years later, Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation took him to Japan, where he drew an Academy Award nomination with his performance from the depths of cultural and personal disorientation. Today, on Murray’s 70th birthday, his fans impatiently await his appearances in Anderson’s The Paris Dispatch and Coppola’s On the Rocks, both of which come out next month. Having long since become an institution (albeit an insistently unconventional and unpredictable one) unto himself, Murray can surely look to the heavens and say what, with uncharacteristic earnestness, he told his SNL audience he wanted to say 33 years ago: “Dad, I did it.”

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Four Classic Prince Songs Re-Imagined as Pulp Fiction Covers: When Doves Cry, Little Red Corvette & More

There’s a book-lined Knowledge Room in the late Prince Rogers Nelson’s Paisley Park, but the Prince-inspired faux-books that artist Todd Alcott imagines are probably better suited to the estate’s purple-lit Relaxation Room.

The Knowledge Room was conceived of as a library where the world’s most famous convert to Jehovah’s Witnesses could delve into religious literature, reflect on the meaning of life, and study the Bible deep into the night.

Alcott’s covers harken to an earlier stage in Prince’s evolution—one the star eventually disavowed—as well as several bygone eras of book design.




Lyrically, there’s no mistaking what Prince’s notorious 1984 “Darling Nikki” is about. There’s a direct line between it and the creation of parental advisory stickers for musical releases containing what is politely referred to as “mature content.”

Alcott’s 1950s pulp novel treatment, above, is similarly graphic. Those skintight purple curves are a promise that even purpler prose lays within, or would, were there any text couched behind that steamy cover.

When Doves Cry” makes for a pretty purple cover, too. In this case, the inspiration is a 1950s self-help book, enriched with some Freudian taglines from Prince’s own pen. (“Maybe you’re just like my mother, she’s never satisfied.”)

Alcott remembers Prince being “an incredibly liberating figure” when he burst onto the scene:

There was his flamboyant, outrageous sexuality, but also his musical omnivorousness; he played funk, rock, pop, jazz, everything. Purple Rain was the Sergeant Pepper’s of its day, a wall-to-wall brilliant album that everyone could recognize as a remarkable achievement. I remember when I first saw Purple Rain, at the very beginning of the movie, before the movie has even begun, the Warner Bros logo came up and you heard the sound of an expectant crowd, and an announcer says “Ladies and Gentlemen, The Revolution,” and the first shot is of Prince, backlit, silhouetted in purple against a dense mist, and he says “Dearly beloved, we have gathered here today to get through this thing called life.” And I was instantly, incontrovertibly, a fan for life. The confidence of that opening, the sheer audacity of it, adopting the tone of a priest at a wedding, in his Hendrix outfit and hairdo, the sheer gutsiness of that statement, alone, just blew me away. And then he proceeded to play “Let’s Go Crazy” which completely lived up to that opening. After that he could have run Buick ads for the rest of the movie and I’d still be a fan.

Decades later, I was sitting in a Subway restaurant at the end of a very, very long, tiring day, and was feeling completely exhausted and miserable, and out of nowhere, “When Doves Cry” came on the sound system. And I was reminded that the song, which was a huge hit in 1984, the song of the year, had no bass line. The arrangement of it made no sense. It was a song put together by force of will, with its metal guitar and its synth strings and its electronic drums. And in that moment, at the end of a long, tiring day, I was reminded that miracles are possible.

Alcott’s miraculous graphic transformations are rounded out with a comparatively understated 1930s murder mystery, Purple Rain and an ingenious Little Red Corvette owner’s manual dating to the mid-60s. Prints of Todd Alcott’s Prince-inspired paperback covers are available in his Etsy shop.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Face of Bill Murray Adds Some Joy to Classic Paintings

Bill Murray isn’t one of those actors who disappears into a role.

Nor is he much of a chameleon on canvas, however iconic, as artist Eddy Torigoe demonstrates with a series that grafts Murray’s famous mug onto a number of equally well-known paintings.

Torigoe told Digg that he was inspired by accident, when he was struck by the uncanny resemblance between Gilbert Stuart’s Lansdowne portrait of George Washington, and a photo of Murray posted by a Reddit user.

He downloaded both images and busied himself with Photoshop.

The rest is history.

The Presidential update is an improvement in ways. Murray-faced Washington appears kindly, and not averse to a bit of fun. No teeth of enslaved peoples compromising that mouth.

While Murray is capable of maintaining a straight face—witness his work in Lost in TranslationThe Razor’s EdgeHamlet 2000, and Torigoe’s homage to Whistler’s Mother, above—more often than not a certain puckishness shines through.

One wonders what would have befallen painter Jacques-Louis David had he bestowed The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries with Murray’s goofy expression.

And it’s well established that a key element of Grant Wood’s oft-parodied American Gothic is the poker faced reserve of its male subject.

Had they been alive today, it’s conceivable that Lucas Cranach the Elder’s portrait of Martin Luther might have depicted a lighter side of his friend, something more Murray-esque. Though given the Reformation and his 95 Theses against Indulgences, maybe not….

Explore more of Eddy Torigoe’s Bill Murray-enriched masterpieces of art, including self-portraits by Rembrandt, Frida Kahlo, and Picasso, on his website.

via My Modern Met

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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