Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Make Me a Vessel of Your Peas

Contrary to what Marc Antony opined, it is not just the evil that men do that lives after them, it is also the inanity. And just as often as we discuss the great performances of our favorite entertainers, we are likely to discuss their blunders, especially if they were not meant to be made public. And in a bizarrely appropriate parallel, just as he made arguably the most influential movie ever made, Orson Welles also made the best-known tantrum ever recorded on tape. If you are not familiar with this Great Moment of Histeria, WFMU-TV creator Mark Rudolph directed and starred in this reenactment film back in the mid-'90's:

In an era before the internet and hyperactive tabloid activity, when incidents of bigwigs behaving badly could be kept quiet, somehow the word got out that if you could prove emphasizing a preposition at the front of a sentence was grammatically acceptable, you too could win a hummer from the man who panicked America. And many of those listeners happened to be entertainers, who proceeded to integrate snippets and aspects of this into their own work, and didn't care whether anyone else would get the reference.

By now, the most widely known homage to the tape is of course the beloved animated TV series "PINKY AND THE BRAIN." While the appearance and dynamic of two laboratory mice attempting to conquer the world was already conceived by the creators of its parent program "ANIMANIACS," it was voice artist Maurice LaMarche who conceived the notion of giving Brain what he described as "65% Orson Welles, 35% Vincent Price." I am convinced that once this concept was applied, co-star Rob Paulsen then made the decision to give Pinky his exaggerated cockney accent, as the voice of the beleaguered director of the ill-fated Findus commercials is clearly some sort of British origin. The series would carry on this inside joke to its logical extreme: in "Yes, Always," a segment originally intended as an exclusive to a VHS compilation but later broadcast on television, the entire incident (along with a shorter one with the same director) was restaged almost word for word, with the invitation to oral sex replaced by a more kid-friendly offer to manufacture cheese. Consequently, hundreds of children and hip parents who knew nothing of Welles or his perfectionism were now eagerly quoting his outbursts for quick laughs.

What is hardly ever discussed is the fact that in their own way, one of the greatest teams in comedy also paid their respects to this incident. On the absolutely-truthful MONTY PYTHON'S CONTRACTUAL OBLIGATION ALBUM, there is a sketch simply called "Bishop," which involves the already strange (but by Python standards, par for the course) situation of an Anglican bishop attempting to deliver voiceover narration for a beer commercial. To add to the randomness of the setting, the bishop feels a strange compulsion to repeatedly describe the beer as tasting of fish. After flubbing multiple takes, the engineers decide to just manually edit out the fish material rather than keep taking up the bishop's time. They tell him to take five and the sound men talk amongst themselves:

Idle: Who is he?

Chapman: The Bishop of Leicester, I think.

Idle: Well, why couldn't we get Bath and Wells?

Chapman: He's doing frozen peas for Nigel.

Idle: Lucky bastard. He's so good.

Again, there has never been any acknowledgement from the Python camp that there was any outside inspiration for the sketch. Besides, Bath and Wells is an actual diocese in England, and there's no second 'e' in the word there. But the three-strike combination of 1) a British commercial voiceover session gone wrong; 2) the preference for "Well(e)s" because he's supposedly a better narrator; and 3) the specific mention of "frozen peas," which is the title that Welles' recording had been circulating under back then (and still, according to Wikipedia) suggests to me that the troupe were fans of this tape. They may not have been prone to do many insular jokes, Reginald Maudling bashing notwithstanding, but this is surely one of them. And this theory of mine, which belongs to me, that is the theory that I have, and which is mine, and what it is too.

Welles himself was aware of how far and wide the tape had traveled, and that many of his peers were probably joking about it behind his back. Outside of one mention of it during the recording of his swansong role as Unicron in the original animated TRANSFORMERS movie (where he agreed it was not his finest hour but stood his ground that his director was a graduate of the Columbia School of Dipshit Broadcasting), there seems to be no documentation of his feelings about the tape's emergence. My personal guess is that while he was certainly not pleased about the leak, he'd been on the dais for enough Dean Martin Roasts to be able to chin up and get the piss taken out of him. And in some ways, especially had he lived to see "PINKY AND THE BRAIN," the ribald joker in him who regularly parodied his persona on "I LOVE LUCY" and "LAUGH-IN," and was not above donning corny disguises and accents to get a laugh, probably would have thought it was hilarious.

I'll have to stop here. I think I just heard a gonk.


  1. Oh, when is Orson Welles pleased about anything? And we love him for it.

  2. Don't forget the homage to this in The Critic (the animated series). Arguably his greatest nadir was doing voice over for the first Manowar album. I'd kill for a recording of Joey DeMaio, assless chaps and all, trying to explain to Orson his vision for this "concept" album.