Monthly Archives: June 2017

Episode Recap: The Son of Ghoul Show “Mr. Wise Guy” (March 6, 1999)

With Son of Ghoul’s big 31st anniversary show this weekend, and indeed, his actual 31st anniversary today right now yo, what say we take a look back at a vintage episode? I always like doing these. (My wi-fi currently hates me and wants me dead, so if I blaze through this, particularly in the second-half, that’s why.)

31 years is unbelievable for any television personality, but especially so when it’s the endangered-species known as “horror host.” Ironically, 31 almost seems a little, I don’t know, anti-climatic, I guess, after the massive hype that surrounded his big 30th last year. I certainly covered it, and was even present when SOG was fittingly honored at Monsterfestmania.

I thought of a couple different topics to post in honor of his 31st continuous year on Northeast Ohio television. I could’ve covered the earliest episode I taped (The Vampire Bat, in 1997), or his 12th anniversary show, or even the episode featuring the first piece of mail I ever sent in to him. I even briefly considered an article detailing a lot of the SOG memorabilia I’ve amassed over the years. I decided against each one of those, however, for a variety of reasons: I’ll save my earliest taped episode for the 20th anniversary of the broadcast this fall, I didn’t feel like covering Frankenstein’s Daughter during his 12th anniversary, and I’m not ready to detail my cringe worthy (yet nostalgic) first letter to him. As for an article focused on SOG memorabilia, I just couldn’t muster up the moxy to drag all that stuff out for a picture-taking session.

Nope, I decided on our subject today for one very simple reason: I just plain like the movie, 1942’s Mr. Wise Guy. Heck, I just plain like the episode in general, and to me that speaks more about my Son of Ghoul fandom than any ‘special’ occurrence I could dig up. After all, this was how the show usually was (is) to me each weekend: A fun, kick-back-and-chill movie showcase.

So, join me now as I detail The Son of Ghoul Show, as aired on WAOH TV-29 in Akron and WAX TV-35 in Cleveland (“The Cat”) and taped by yours truly waaaay back on March 6, 1999…

(Also, I’ve been on a real kick for The Cat lately, even more so than usual. This comes from that late-90s sweet-spot of the channel, so I’m happy with the choice. And, if that kick keeps up, I may dig something else out from the station to cover. You keep pushing me and I just might, pal.)

I vividly recall this being a surprise episode. Y’see, SOG was on twice-a-week at that point: 8-10 PM, Fridays and Saturdays, same episode. This was handy, because you could sample on Friday, and tape-as-needed on Saturday. But, for whatever reason, he was only on Saturday that week, a fact he briefly mentions in his intro (above).

I think (think) he was preempted totally the night before due to some women’s college basketball tournament The Cat was broadcasting/simulcasting/whatevercasting. So because he was only on Saturday that week, I couldn’t risk missing a must-have episode, especially with no knowledge of what the movie would be. Because said basketball tournament was concluding that Saturday, there was no telling when SOG’s show would actually begin; I had to start the VCR recording waaaaay ahead of time, which was why I wound up with like an hour of that stupid basketball game on the tape before the episode started.

This obsessiveness proved fortuitous. That night, we were at my aunt’s house for some party I was quite probably miserable at, and I flipped to The Cat to see what episode I was capturing. When it finally started and Mr. Wise Guy was revealed, I was pleased as punch. SOG had ran this film, I don’t know, a year or so prior, and I had regretted not capturing it then. I actually liked the movie!

And I wasn’t the only one; SOG himself mentions that he likes it as well during his intro. How often did (does) that happen?!

The reason I initially liked this film so much largely had to do with what it represented: A trip back to a more innocent time in cinema. This is pure, early-1940s matinee entertainment. It’s an East Side Kids (you know, the Bowery Boys, except not) film, so there’s some light hooliganism about, but even with that, an escaped convict, a murder, a death-row sentence, and a real-life war going on, it’s all so light and breezy that it never seems too heavy. I’m hesitant to ascribe the term “innocence” to a film that contains all that, but like I said, this is matinee entertainment; it’s not exactly a weighty, socially-conscious drama.

The idea of an East Side Kids film showing up on a horror hosted program may seem odd, but as SOG states during his intro, Ghoulardi himself used to run these (and fittingly, on Saturdays!). If these were good enough for Ghoulardi, they should be good enough for any other host, too. And somehow, to me they seem to ‘fit’ just fine. Maybe that’s because I grew up with SOG showing them occasionally (still does, in fact), but looked at objectively, they still work. It’s not like a b-western, which unless it shared some horror influence or other odd quirk (Terror of Tiny Town, anyone?), just wouldn’t seem to fit. Look, I can’t really adequately explain why it works so well, it just does.

And, in a trend that continues to this day, SOG doesn’t tamper with these kinds of films; no drop-ins, no sound effects. Just the movie straight. Evidently he has some real appreciation for these flicks, and we’re all the better for it. Even when missing those elements so well-known to SOG fans, it flows perfectly.

The title of the film comes from a moniker given to (and approved by) Leo Gorcey’s character “Muggs” McGinnis (first name: Ethelbert), who is deemed so several times throughout the picture.

The simple synopsis of the plot: The East Side Kids are sent to reform school. There’s a bit more to it than that, though. Unjustly accused of stealing a truck (a truck that, unbeknownst to them, houses an escaped convict), they’re sent to a reformatory run by a kind warden, a cruel guard, and a couple of troublesome inmates that are secretly in cahoots with aforementioned cruel guard. Also on the docket: Bill Collins, older brother of cast member Bobby Jordan’s Danny Collins, is accused of murder and sentenced to death row. Eventually these plotlines unbelievably though perhaps predictably, collide. And since this is from 1942, it all ends on a relatively happy note. ‘Cept for the dude who died, anyway.

Needless to say, much of this is played for laughs. Even while incarcerated, Gorcey’s gang never seems too concerned with their situation. Even as Danny frets over his brother’s predicament back in the real world, the other guys just sort of blow it off – which admittedly does play out a little strange. I can’t imagine that being realistic even back in ’42.

Still, as a whole, the movie is entertaining. Indeed, I wasn’t sure if I’d still get a kick out of it when I sat down to convert my VHS to DVD for this review, but it greatly held my attention throughout. I was even genuinely amused by certain moments, which can’t always be said of semi-comedies of this vintage.

Look, the movie is in the public domain, so don’t just take my word for it; check it out for yourself. Since SOG didn’t add any sound effects, you’ll see it (almost) as it aired here!

(Fun Fact: Some years ago at a thrift store, I stumbled upon a 3-VHS boxset of East Side Kids films. Included were both of their Bela Lugosi collaborations, Spooks Run Wild and Ghosts on the Loose, as well as the title that really spurred the eventual purchase: Mr. Wise Guy. I never watched any of them, don’t think I even played any of the tapes, and subsequently the set became buried in my mound of crap videos. It should still be around here, somewhere, which is good, because unknown to me at the time was that the company who put it out, Passport Productions, was spawned from the ashes of Amvest Video, who we’ve seen here before. Cool winnins!)

Unfortunately, the movie isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t have much to do with plot, but rather stereotypes that were prevalent at the time. Ernest Morrison, often known as “Sunshine Sammy,” is the victim of some unfortunate racial jokes, as his character “Scruno” is the outlet for some now-wildly-inappropriate stereotyping. Look, I don’t claim to be a super-PC-advocate, but man, even I was uncomfortable with some of the gags at his expense.

That said, I am an advocate of not editing things of this nature to reflect current social attitudes. Yes, some of the jokes have aged terribly, but they reflect the time in which the film was made; you can’t rewrite history, only learn from it. And besides, the jokes are incredibly dated, but never really mean-spirited, if that counts for anything.

And with all that said, we now come to the rest of the show…

The first skit proper is actually an old bit from the WOAC TV-67 days, and I love it because it perfectly sums up SOG’s sense of humor, which very often syncs up with mine.

In a parody of the whole “carrying the Olympic torch” thing, here SOG dutifully marches with a plunger triumphantly raised, only to enter the studio bathroom and begin plunging! That’s all there is to it, and it’s great!

Truth be told, SOG doesn’t feature heavily heavily into this episode. I mean, he does, he shows up after each commercial-break, but it’s not new bit after new bit after new bit. His hosting duties, while prominent, maybe aren’t quite as prominent as they usually were, and I think that has much to do with this spot right here.

In a segment that takes up a healthy chunk of running time, SOG and guest Carl Thompson speak extensively on the Frightvision convention, coming later that month. Yes, Frightivision, the SOG-hosted horror convention; we’ve talked about it before! Here, SOG and Thompson thoroughly go over the list of guests and events coming to the show, and it goes on for around 8 minutes, which is pretty much a lifetime in horror-show-time.

That’s not a complaint on my part, though; I could not be happier this segment is present! I talked more extensively on the convention in the piece I just linked to (another SOG episode, Plan 9 From Outer Space, which aired later that same month), but Frightvision was a BIG deal. It was also my very first horror convention of any kind. Long story short: I positively loved it. I got to meet Ben “Gill Man” Chapman, Mark “Lost in Space Guy” Goddard, SOG’s own Fidge (who was great), saw Tom Savini (but didn’t meet him until the following year), and came home with some very cool loot (including a vintage SOG TV-67 promo card, which I still have to this day). All of the fanaticism that manifests itself in me for each and every Ghoulardifest began at the very first Frightvision, and for that I hold the fondest of memories.

So yes, seeing the segment that so aptly demonstrates the swirling hype surrounding Frightvision in the weeks leading up to it, that’s the sort of thing that can take me directly back in time. And movie aside, to me this is the defining moment of this particular episode.

An email segment. More (!) information on Frightvision is presented, and a spider glove that apparently belonged to Fidge is shown. Unless y’all want me to go email by email, there’s not much more I can say about it.

I would love to show the old school, wildly obsolete SOG email address, back when having an email address was still semi-innovative, but in the interest of avoiding confusion, I’ll refrain.

In the second mail segment, the reading of letters devolves into a long, drawn out explosion of fake fart noises, which has SOG and his crew dying with laughter. SOG: “Can you tell we’re so easily amused here?” Like the toilet torch earlier in the show, it’s a juvenile, and therefore riotous, moment. This is the stuff that helped cement my sense of humor, gang. You want someone to blame? Blame SOG.

Because my wi-fi is in a seemingly-perpetual state of precariousness, there were two other bits amidst all this insanity that I’m choosing to skip. One, a “Captain Kanga-Ghoul,” and the other, an on-location interview at a liquor store that happened to be one of Frightvision’s sponsors, were fun, sorta-filler bits, but frankly, I don’t have all that much to say about them. Also, I’d like to punch my wi-fi in the face.

Also, here is the point where I’d usually look at interesting (or so I think) commercials that aired during an original broadcast. I’m going to skip that feature this time around. Why? Because basically all of the ones I would have chosen were already covered in that previously-linked Plan 9 From Outer Space SOG episode recap. And the other, a goofy homegrown promo for a showing of Reefer Madness, was briefly looked at in the The Cat article I linked to way at the start of this post. I love it when I do my own work for me!

It all works out though, because I can end this article in accordance with the way this show itself ends: As the outro opens, SOG is seen jokingly patting his phony beard back into place, along with a “We’re not done yet!”

But, it’s what he says right after that that sums up not only the conclusion to this particular episode, but also the continuing 31 year odyssey his show has been on: “They say you’re not done till the show’s over! Or until you’re out of toilet paper; then you’re done!” I think I can speak on the behalf of SOG’s many fans when I say I hope SOG never runs out of toilet paper.

Boy, that sounded so much more philosophical in my head.

Happy 31st anniversary, Son of Ghoul!

(PS – I’d be remiss if I didn’t link to my legendary, groundbreaking, earth-shattering, trendsetting interview with the man himself!)

(PPS – They may not have been able to repeat this year, but man, I still love the Cleveland Cavaliers. I’ll stick with you guys win or lose! Just thought I should mention that somewhere, since the loss is naturally still on the mind of so many Northeast Ohioans right now.)

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The CBS / Diet Coke Sneak Peak Promo VHS (1997)

Look at this incredible piece of 1990s television and VHS memorabilia!

This isn’t a super recent find; I came across it at a thrift store some months back, but man, I knew, knew it had to come home with me. And so it did! The content is right up my alley, and it’s still sealed, too! The price? Under a buck! Cool winnins!

As you can see, it’s a promotional VHS presented by both Diet Coke and CBS, given out in advance of the 1997 television season. Yep, this was the fall line-up on CBS! While out and about hunting for tapes, sometimes it’s easy for me to forget how neat they can be, especially after passing the 9000th copy of Titanic, but this is definitely one of the good’uns.

What’s really amazing about this, from a personal standpoint, is that even though I myself didn’t own this video back in the day, I remember so much of that ’97 CBS line-up. Even what I didn’t watch myself, I vividly recall being ‘around’ nevertheless. Advertisements in TV Guide and what have you.

But listen, this isn’t going to be a big huge full in-depth review of the tape, and for one very simple reason: I refuse to crack the shrinkwrap, man! I just can’t do it. I’ve never come across one of these before, and currently there’s only one like it on eBay…for a whopping $35! Whether that means it’s actually rare or not, I couldn’t say, though I doubt it; there was a time when preview cassettes (and later, DVDs) like this were fairly commonplace. Maybe still are, I don’t know. Nevertheless, my copy is going to stay minty sealed fresh – though I’m stretching the term minty here, since my copy is a little beat-up and dirty. Evidently someone did not appreciate the majesty of this tape the way yours truly does!

(Looking on eBay, it appears CBS released preview tapes such as this for several years. I’m not going to say I’ll go out of my way for any others, but should I come across them while thrifting, well, that’s a no-brainer purchase for sure.)

So, the front cover. The whole thing is apparently hosted by Ray Romano, whose sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond was steadily picking up steam around that time, if it hadn’t already. That was the season I started watching his show, though it was near the end of the year; actually, I think it had hit summer reruns when I first jumped on board. Anyway, it’s interesting to look back at the show in its earlier years; eventually it would be the cornerstone of CBS’ powerhouse Monday night line-up of sitcoms. (I watched the show avidly for years, though truth be told, it hasn’t worn particularly well for me.)

Cybill, the appropriately-named sitcom starring Cybill Shepherd, I never watched back in the day, though I caught some syndicated episodes in more recent times. Dellaventura and Michael Hayes were and are unknown to me outside of this cover, though the latter appears to feature David Caruso in some capacity, and that just puts the whole CSI: Miami pre-credits-pun thing in my head.

However, it’s the appropriate pictorial references to Meego and The Gregory Hines Show, neither of which I ever recall watching, that provide the real reason I’m so excited to own this tape. Y’see, there’s one very specific factor that makes this VHS a must-own, and it ain’t Ray Barone. Rather, the answer is found in Meego and Gregory The Hines Show, or to be precise, the block they were a part of…

Do ya see it?! Urkel! Yes, URKEL! The presence of Steve Urkel can only mean one thing: A Friday night block of sitcoms aimed at kids too young to go out and do anything else. That’s the pool CBS was jumping in that fall, and Family Matters was jumping with them.

Y’see, ABC’s Friday night sitcoms, deemed TGIF, was a big deal for quite some time. I absolutely grew up with it, and there’s a good chance you did too. I certainly have my share of nostalgic memories pertaining to the line-up (well, various line-ups), though in this more jaded day and age, it may be hard for some modern audiences to understand just why TGIF was such a dominate force. It was though, and while by no means was he the only reason, a big, big factor in that TGIF dominance was indeed Steve Urkel.

Meant to be a one-time-only character on a show that was supposedly facing cancellation, Jaleel White’s uber-nerd Steve Urkel instead became the de facto face of Family Matters and, for a time, a legit cultural phenom. Dude totally saved the series, stole the spotlight from ostensible star Al Powell Reginald Vel Johnson, got his own dolls, his own cereal, even his own novelty dance! Mystery Science Theater 3000 later brilliantly ripped into the (inexplicable?) phenomenon, and admittedly the Urkel character grew tiresome (and the storylines of Family Matters more insane) as the series progressed into the mid and late-1990s, but there’s no denying that, for a few years there, Urkel was one of the faces of ’90s television.

But you know what? I still like Family Matters! Oh sure, much of that has to do with nostalgia, the show was a big part of my childhood for sure, but as dumb (and crazy) as it could occasionally be, I still find myself enjoying it when I watch nowadays. Indeed, I’d say Family Matters is the definitive TGIF show, or at least tied with Boy Meets World. (Sorry Full House, you lose.) If you didn’t grow up during the 1990s, I’m not sure you’d get it, but those of us that were there, we know. Maybe. I do, at any rate.

ANYWAY, for the fall of ’97 CBS managed to snag Family Matters and other-TGIF-mainstay Step By Step from ABC and used them to headline the “CBS Block Party,” their very own attempt at a TGIF-ish line-up. Truth be told, both shows, and TGIF in general, were a little long-in-the-tooth by 1997 (and in my particular case, I was about to discover Son of Ghoul, which left little time for anything else Friday evenings), but there was a residual name-factor at play, so along with Meego and The Gregory Hines Show, CBS acquired Family Matters and Step By Step and proceeded to take TGIF head-on.

Annnnd it didn’t really work. None of the shows lasted beyond that season – some spectacularly so (Meego only made it six episodes!). Family Matters wound up being placed on hiatus mid-season, with the remaining episodes burned off during the summer of ’98. Still, despite the ultimate failure, as an experiment in late-90s programming and featuring two very 1990s shows, the CBS Block Party is an interesting subject to look back on, if nothing else. (Furthermore, while TGIF lived on, it was never really the same, though Boy Meets World continued to fight the good fight).

And that my friends is why this tape is such an important find for yours truly: It represents a piece of nostalgia tied directly into a programming experiment that ultimately didn’t fly. I couldn’t ask for anything more!

But what about the other shows promoted on the back cover of the tape? The Bryant Gumbel thing and Brooklyn South, I can’t say much about those. But Cosby and George & Leo I absolutely remember. Coming a few years after his previous, far more popular sitcom, Cosby I caught now and then, but frankly never thought it was very good. George & Leo, however, I liked a lot. It only lasted that single season, but I enjoyed it, and looking back, it was my first entry into what would end up being an endearing Bob Newhart fandom, though I wasn’t cognizant of that at the time.

So seeing all that plastered on the tape is an added bonus for me. Steve Urkel and Bob Newhart sharing the same stage? Did that ever happen prior? Or after, for that matter? Thas history, man.

Anyway, dig the helpfully included schedule on the back cover; it’s a veritable study in late-1990s television, albeit a CBS-centric one. (Well duh!) The only thing missing is David Letterman’s goofy smile to complete the package, though since this was the prime time line-up, his exclusion is understandable. Disregarding the shows I just don’t know much about, there’s not a whole lot listed that I actively hate. Except The Nanny. I detest The Nanny and always have. Also, I wonder how Don Johnson felt about Nash Bridges getting Step By Step as a lead-in? That’s not exactly a seamless transition!

Finally, I love the big WKBN TV-27 Youngstown sticker slapped on the back, even if they’re not quite my CBS affiliate (a WOIO sticker would have made this the ultimate). This isn’t unusual; the $35 copy on eBay demonstrates a sticker from the respective television market that one hails from, so tailoring these to local needs was evidently the norm. I would imagine this tape was made available for cheap (free?) in video stores, supermarkets, wherever VHS tapes were sold in WKBN’s market. I remember getting an NBC fall preview DVD in the early/mid-2000s at Best Buy, so I’ll go with that mindset regarding this CBS VHS.

On the surface, this may not seem like a “big” find, and in the grand scheme things, or at least in the grand scheme of my disturbingly large video collection, I guess it’s not. Nevertheless, it’s still amazing how this one transports me right back to the fall of 1997. Man, (I was in 5th grade! That’s mind-blowing to realize!) It’s a cool promotional representation of network television in the late-1990s, including some throwbacks to the earlier-1990s, as part of a TV experiment that ultimately didn’t take. Add in the looks at the shows that did take, and you’ve got an invaluable view of a very specific era in broadcasting. And I’m just going by the sleeve! I can only imagine what it’s like actually watching this!

I don’t know, maybe I should crack the shrinkwrap? Or do I dare hold out hope for a double instead? Oh the decisions that I must face!