Thursday, November 20, 2008
Television Review: THE LETTER PEOPLE, EPISODE 1- MEET MR. M (1974, Elayne Reiss-Weimann & Rita Friedman)
Ah, the Letter People. Part educational tool for burgeoning readers. Part low-budget Lynchian puppet and variety show. Part blurry childhood nightmare. Part purveyor of cryptic social messages. It all adds up to something greater than a half-remembered dream and something less than a concrete piece of culture. Yet thanks to bootlegging, DVD-burning, and YouTubing, those who maintained disbelief for so many years can no longer deny that it did, in fact, exist. And now I have the singular opportunity to review select episodes of this truly whacky series for the thirsty masses. Before I begin, let's hash out an overview. Created in 1972 and first airing in 1974, there were episodes for all 26 letters of the alphabet, and the performance of songs accompanied most of them (Mr. R and Mr. X being notable exceptions, though their songs do exist, in audio-only format). There were extra episodes relating to words and sentences, sometimes taking the form of the game show-within-the-show entitled "The Catching Game," and sometimes taking the form of multi-episode adventures or mysteries. All of my reviews will refer to the original 70's series, as subsequently, in the 1990's, many of the characters were politically corrected. As it stands, most of the Letter People harbor bad habits, poor attitudes , and a penchant for junk food. Others, however, provide eccentricities and refreshing contrast, not only to their brethren, but in some cases, the social mores of the time. The 21 consonants of the alphabet are all male, the five vowels are female. Of the 21 Letter People men, almost all are either frightening pedophiles or flamingly gay. All five of the Letter People women embody ridiculous female stereotypes, but possibly for satirical reasons. As my analysis continues, I believe that the creators of the Letter People and their motives will come more and more into focus.
Episode 1: Meet Mr. M
Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 15 minutes.
Our first taste of the Letter People gives us a great deal of the essential qualities that will eventually become both familiar and lovable: a lasciviously-narrated introduction, emphasis on eating unhealthy foods, stock black backgrounds, low-budget puppets, and unskilled operation of said puppets.
It also gives us one of the most rockin' songs from Letter People Land, with an infectious bass line, sweet drum breaks, groovy Hammond organ refrains, a bumpin' guitar solo, and an echo effect. There's also some kickass graphic overlays and quick edits which officially confirm that this is the missing link between Sesame Street and the Monterey Pop festival.
Now to the man himself, Mr. M. When I said every male member of the Letter People was either a pedophile or flamingly gay, I was not telling a lie. Mr. M clearly falls under the former category, with his round, untrustworthy face; brown suit and nasty 70's tie; oddly-spaced eyeballs; creepy orange toupee; awkward arm movements; and proclivity toward munching whatever he can get his unhinged, toothless mouth on.
Furthermore, he a serious eating disorder, perhaps borne of pedophilic self-loathing, which is ceaseless- from morning to midnight, from midnight to morning:
"I'm Mr. M, with a munchy mouth! My mouth must munch, munch, munch; my mouth has lunch, lunch, lunch! I munch from morning to midnight, midnight to morning; Munchy Mouth, I'm Mr. M! Meatballs, macaroni, mashed potatoes I adore! Marshmallows, maple syrup, melon, milk, there's room for more...for Mr. M with a Munchy Mouth. My mouth must munch, munch, munch; my mouth has lunch, lunch, lunch! I munch from morning to midnight, midnight to morning; Munchy Mouth, meet Mr. M! Milkshakes, marmalade, mayonnaise I adore! Muffins, mushrooms and molasses, more and more and more and more! I'm Mr. M, with a munchy mouth! My mouth must munch, munch, munch; my mouth has lunch, lunch, lunch! I munch from morning to midnight, midnight to morning; Munchy Mouth, I'm Mr. M, with a Munchy Mouth, I'm Mr. M! MUNCHING MOUTH! (fadeout with echo effect, perhaps to give the illusion that you are, in fact, entering his mouth at the finish of the song?) "
So it's the first Letter People episode. So much was said, yet so little. It's a more 'what you see is what you get episode,' in contrast to some which surreptitiously stretch the boundaries and limits of body and mind. Later we'll get into character interactions, complex sets, celebrity lookalikes, more rockin' songs, and the true face of terror.