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Jeff Altman‘s one of those folks who tends to just pop up all around but you never seem to notice him. I’m not really what you’d all an Altman fan (his use of soft-focus and his sound design drives me nuts, but the former’s just because I’ve got really poor eyesight anyway… wait, wrong Altman!), but he’s interesting to look about in just the way he pops up everywhere.
I mean, I am a huge TV fan; I always have been and always pretty much will be. When I was a young spud, I used to watch Dukes of Hazzard reruns all the time — though I don’t really like the show anymore. But I just recently realized that Altman was in that — he was Boss Hogg‘s scheming nephew. I found that by flipping through the channels and halting on CMT when I thought I saw Jeff Altman… so I watched, and sure enough, it was him, and sure enough, he was dressing up in various disguises throughout the episode.
Another retrospect discovery — when looking up on IMDB to see if he was a guest star on that episode or actually in the cast, I saw that he had a guest shot on one of my favorite sitcoms of all time — Night Court. He was in the episode “The New Judge” — the one where a substitute judge buddies up to Dan for Nefarious Purposes (I won’t spoil the episode if folks haven’t seen it). Also from IMDB — he apparently had another shot on another one of the best sitcoms ever, WKRP, in “Johnny Come Home“.
And I saw this on Metafilter, featuring Jeff as the Weather Wizard! And he’s done a few cartoon voices in Tiny Toon Adventures, Slimer! And The Real Ghostbusters and Garfield and Friends. He’s shown up in the companion video for The Benzedrine Monks of Santo Domonica (a side-project of Big Daddy, also known for their Sgt. Pepper’s album — a cover of the Beatles’ album in various 1950s doo-wop styles; though, no Altman involvement in that, as far as I know), and the utterly forgettable sitcom Nurses — so forgettable, that despite having seen every episode on its original airing, and sometimes even on Lifetime Network reruns a long time ago — I can only remember the vaguest of things about it — mainly the occasional appearance by Empty Nest characters. I don’t even remember Jeff in this — and the blurb about his character didn’t jog any memories at all. It’s strange for me to forget a show so completely.
Of course, the main thing Jeff Altman is known for is Pink Lady and Jeff. What can be said about Pink Lady and Jeff (or, officially, Pink Lady — the “and Jeff” was part of the semi-official title, which actually was a bit of a sticking point for poor Jeff).
What can be said?
It’s… just so mindboggingly bad that it’s really hard to think what anyone involved was thinking. The Rhino DVD set is actually surprisingly good. Rhino found some of the promotional materials, included a biography on Pink Lady, and got Jeff to do a 20 minute interview and show introductions, where he is incredibly bitter about:
a) Not Having His Name Technically In The Title, and
b) The Utter And Complete Failure Of This Show, Which Even He Realizes Is Completely Terribly Awful. Which is kind of funny, since it seems that “Man, I was on this really horrible show that people just kept trying to ruin! And my name wasn’t even in the title of it!”
It’s a very, very strange show. The main thrust of it seems to be “Hey, these girls? They sure are Asian!” and there’s lots of recurring bits that aren’t funny and don’t work at all. But they just keep coming back, because that’s what the recurring bits do. An example of both of these in one blow: The horrifying segments with comedy legend Sid Caesar as their father (since all Asian people look alike, it’s totally buyable that Mie and Kei are sisters… despite, you know, not really looking anything alike), dressing in samurai drag, speaking in broken, clipped English (with the occasional L/R swapping joke), making things difficult for Mie and Kei’s suitors (played in these bits by Jeff Altman and Jim Varney… yes, that Jim Varney). It’s pretty embarrassing and unpleasant. (Sure, John Belushi‘s Samurai bits on SNL were playing off stereotypes as well, but, well, at least they were funny.)
As the series progressed, it did get better – the realization that it wasn’t going to be renewed, and was most likely going to end up being cancelled set in, so they got a little looser with the show; one of the best jokes is in the last episode where Mie and Kei speak Polish to Bobby Vinton; Jeff asks “Wait, you girls know Polish?” and Mie says “Well, we sure don’t know English!”. (Another amusing bit involved a Prison Radio Station for Death Row — lots of morbid jokes in that one that you wouldn’t really expect to see on a network variety show.) Unfortunately, the last few episodes never aired and they while being better, they weren’t nearly enough to make anyone particularly miss the show or argue that it shouldn’t have been canned.
The problem with Pink Lady isn’t all on the shoulders of the actors and writers (which included the really talented Mark Evanier, who also wrote for many, much better TV shows, and the comic book Groo The Wanderer); NBC and the producers seemed to have actively worked on ruining the show. For example, in Japan, Pink Lady was mainly known for doing everything totally in sync. NBC, however, wanted them to have individual personalities. So they weren’t allowed to do the Unison Movements. As such, the dancing ends up being really awkward and they keep sort of catching themselves, so instead of being Slick and Synchronized, or Wholly Unsynchronized, it ends up just looking like they’re really, really bad at being in sync. (They’re not; in the first episode, they actually showed a Japanese TV clip where they were doing the standard routine, and they were perfectly timed.)
NBC didn’t allow them to sing in Japanese for the most part, so they memorized all of their English dialogue/songs phonetically, since they don’t know the language at all. So Pink Lady tend to have this distinct deer-in-headlights look, just because, well, you do a TV show on a national major network in a language you don’t know! Again, there’s glimpses of the actual talent Pink Lady do indeed have, as they got to do two or three songs in Japanese – which were, of course, by far the best musical numbers; the songs were actually good, and Pink Lady were relaxed and in their element (and not having to speak in a language they had no idea how to speak). Unfortunately, the rest of the songs were typically disco covers (though, in 1980, the Disco fad was beginning to die, and “Boogie Wonderland” and its ilk were beginning to sound dated) or other pop standards (like “Yesterday”), which Pink Lady tried their best on, but couldn’t really make work.
The strangest thing about the show, though, is the Utterly Formulaic Structure. It goes:
a) Jeff’s Monologue
b) Pink Lady come out in kimonos, doing the first line or two of an American song in Japanese, rip off the kimonos to reveal Sexy Dresses(tm), and do a song they don’t know the lyrics to (i.e. “Boogie Wonderland” or “Stop! In The Name Of Love”)
c) Jeff comes out and they do a short bit which ends in the Sumo Wrestler Guy coming out and maybe chasing Jeff around or otherwise intimidating him
d) The Radio Sketch which includes typically the Annoying Faith Healer and maybe Art Nuvo, one of Jeff’s “characters” where he sells art items (it’s not clear if the joke is that he’s selling prints/reproductions or the originals for cheap prices; the joke would make sense if it were the latter, but he keeps talking about having multiple copies of, say, Rodin’s Thinker, so…)
e) Art Nuvo tosses to another TV-Based Sketch
f) First musical guest
g) More unfunny comedy just cut in
h) Pink Lady & Musical Guest
i) More g)
j) Spliced in Blondie/Alice Cooper Video
h) Mie Writes A Letter Home (“Dear Mom, I am totally sorry I killed that guy; I didn’t think they make me do this show as my punishment…”) and they do a routine about a random city
i) The Hot Tub
f) The biggest laugh when the “Produced by Sid And Marty Krofft” credit comes up first (The perfect surreal topper to a bizarre show that feels as if it shouldn’t exist; it’s completely different than everything you think of when you think of “Krofft”.)
And, yes – i) does indeed read “The Hot Tub”. That’s not a typo or code for anything. See, NBC said that they needed some way to Americanize Pink Lady’s appeal. And, apparently this was the beginning of the Hot Tub Craze, so they decided that Pink Lady should go hot-tubbing every episode. And the joke, in every episode, is that they go behind a screen and strip, Jeff rants about how he doesn’t want to go into the hot tub, they come out in robes, take off the robes and show their bikinis. Jeff then makes some sort of “Hey, naked hot chicks!” comment w/r/t the bikinis, and they force him into the hot tub in his tuxedo. Then he says “Sayonara” and they say “Good night!” and he says “See you next week!” and the credits come up. It’s… strange because it’s the type of joke that would only work once maximum, and not even then really, but they do it EVERY EPISODE. EVERY EPISODE Jeff doesn’t see the Hot-Tubbing Coming, and EVERY EPISODE Jeff has to be convinced/forced into the hot tub, where Pink Lady usually end up taking off his jacket and hang off him for a while.
The sad thing, though, is that Pink Lady are obviously actually really talented, and they’re being wasted on this. As for Jeff, well, as I said before, I’m not really an Altman fan per se, but you do feel a little bad for him, because he’s obviously trying to make the best out of a bad situation; he’s not the funniest guy in the world — far from it — but he’s occasionally amusing; on one hand, he deserves better, but on the other hand, he did get his own TV show, no matter how misguided or short-lived, which is more you can say for most people. And, he seems to be doing OK for himself. He’s got a decent career from small TV roles, he’s got a live comedy CD, he’s been on David Letterman 36 times, and he’s officially “Somewhat” famous! (Although, there are other, some might say overly harsh, opinions on Jeff’s contributions to the show and society in general…)
The DVD set, despite what you might think from the rest of this post, is so worth getting. I’m glad I got it. It’s amazing to see this sort of thing, just because it’s sort of like What Happens When TV Goes Wrong. It’s the last-ditch attempt at a flailing network to try and get viewers by showing something different and instead killing an entire genre (Pink Lady & Jeff is pretty much considered the last of the variety shows. There’s been a few others, like Penn & Teller’s Sin City Spectacular and the one the Smothers Brothers had back in 1988 or thereabouts, though I don’t think either of those count since the former was a not-terribly-well-rated cable show that ended after a couple years, and the latter was a series of one-off specials, sort of like a one-off mini-series that wasn’t ever really intended to become a series. And it’s not like either of them really brought back a Variety Show Renaissance (i.e. stuff like Bobcat’s Big-Ass Show had already appeared in the interim, and the occasional later contender never really stuck around either). Understandably, since, well, the Variety Show Genre is, um, pretty awful, really, what with the whole Unevenness built in. I think the Penn & Teller one was about the best I’d seen, and even that was best videotaped for fast-forwarding skills.). So, yeah. People interested in Pop Culture should view Pink Lady & Jeff just because the failures are just as interesting as the successes. Well, sometimes, mainly when they fail so spectacularly. This isn’t your every day failed program – this is a complete train wreck from day one. Right out of the gate, it’s unsalvageable. And it’s remarkable that it aired for five episodes instead of, say, two, one or zero.
So, yeah, check it out. It’s one of the strangest and worst things ever put on television. And it’s so utterly compelling. It is The Perfect Failure.
And, apparently, NBC’s ratings are doing terribly again — so perhaps we’ll get a chance to see the next Pink Lady and Jeff? After all — it’s similar circumstances that lead to this beautiful wreck…