Small Wonder – “Minnesota Vicki”

In February 1989, the American comedy sitcom Small Wonder aired an episode that had me wondering how this series lasted four seasons. Entitled “Minnesota Vicki,” the 91st episode (out of 96) focused on Ted Lawson (Richard Christie) inviting his boss over for dinner and billiards on a rented table, with the hope that some friendly pool would help him land a huge promotion at United Robotronics.  Ted doesn’t make much headway until, unbeknownst to him, Vicki (Tiffany Brissette), his robotic daughter (literally) plays his boss and ultimately wins ownership of the company in the process, due to the boss’ hubris and incredulity that a child could ever play pool so well.

For the uninitiated, Small Wonder chronicles the family of Ted Lawson, a robotics engineer, who creates a robot modeled after a 10-year-old girl, and then passes the robot off as his adopted daughter, Vicky (or V.I.C.I., an acronym for Voice Input Child Identicant).  Like many robots on TV, this one has unusual abilities, including a super-strong break and such geometric precision that she can seemingly make any shot on the table, including sinking all the balls on the break.

The episode is pretty humorless, portending the end of the series.  The jokes feel forced, the script is stale, the acting is thin, and – oh god, those ‘80s wardrobes. It’s no small wonder (!!) that none of the lead actors had much commercial success after the series ended. In fact, the only silver lining to “Minnesota Vicki” is the trick shots in pool, courtesy of technical consultant Lou Butera. Aside from the standard multi-pocket shots, there are some beautiful jumps and masses.  (Fans of “Machine Gun” Lou know that he not only appeared in The Fall Guy episode “Eight Ball,” but also played pool in movies such as Racing with the Moon and Police Academy 6: City Under Siege.)  The full “Minnesota Vicki” episode is available to watch here.

But, for such a lame episode, “Minnesota Vicki” does engender two interesting questions.  First, could a robot play pool so well?  And second, could a 10-year-old child play pool so well?

I tackled the first question about three years ago when I reviewed the My Living Doll episode “Pool Shark” so I won’t rehash it here, as not much has advanced.  Suffice to say, a lot of robots are being built to shoot pool, though none can currently play like V.I.C.I. or the My Living Doll android Rhoda Miller.

The second question, however, presents new terrain for my blog, as the billiards movie/television milieu has been lacking elementary school-aged prodigies. (I’m guessing Bobby Brady was at least a teenager when he showcased his pool prowess in The Brady Bunch episode “The Hustler.”)

Fortunately, it doesn’t require much online searching to affirmatively answer that it’s not science fiction for a young child to play amazeballs pool.  Take Keith O’Dell, who set the world record for youngest billiards player at the age of 25 months.  You can watch him dazzle in this video from when he was 5 years old.  Or, there is Wang Wuka, age 4 when this video was filmed, from Eastern China, who spends several hours a day on the snooker table.

Jean Balukas

Jean Balukas, age 6

In fact, as billiards buffs and historians know, a number of the sport’s greatest started at a very young age.  As we learned in the documentary The Strickland Story, Earl “The Pearl” Strickland started playing at age 8, when his dad snuck him into a North Carolina pool hall.  Billiards Congress of America Hall of Famer Loree Jon Hasson ran her first rack at age 5 and performed her first trick shots at age 6 at a Chicago men’s World Straight Pool tournament.[1] The great Jean Balukas gained such attention at age 6 from performing in a billiards exhibition at Grand Central Station that she subsequently appeared on the show I’ve Got a Secret.  By the time she was in 2nd grade, she was being billed as the “Little Princess of Pocket Billiards.”

And, of course, there is the legend Willie Mosconi, who first learned to play pool by practicing with small potatoes from his mother’s kitchen and a broomstick. At age 6, he participated in an exhibition match against the reigning world champion Ralph Greenleaf. Mosconi lost but the game cemented his reputation as a prodigy. By the time he was 11, he was the US juvenile straight pool champion, regularly holding trick shot exhibitions.[2]

So, if you’re thinking of betting your company in a game of pool against a fifth-grade android, remember: it’s not the robotic circuitry you need to worry about.  You’ve been warned.

[1]       “BILLIARDS; A Top Player Survives That Sinking Feeling,” New York Times, August 12, 1995.

[2]       “10 Extraordinary Child Prodigies,” April 6, 2009.

Top 12 Billiards Comic Book Covers

billiards comic bookAlmost two years ago, a friend alerted me that Pool & Billiards Magazine had done a cover story on billiards comic book covers. Entitled “Comic Collection: Comics Featuring Our Favorite Sport!,” the November 2015 article focused on the 52 book collection of billiards enthusiast Gary Nelson.  Mr. Nelson’s covers ranged from Popular Comics #124 (June 6, 1946) to Grimm Fairy Tales #82D (February, 2013).

As a long-time comic book collector, whose passion for comics pre-dates his passion for billiards by almost a decade, I was instantly hooked. In fact, I was a bit downtrodden, if not even slightly jealous, that the idea of munging comic books and billiards had not occurred to me. Ironically, I had even written a blog post in June 2014 – Top 10 Cartoon Cue Stick Carriers  – that referenced a few such covers.

No matter. I jumped into the research with the energy of Firestorm and the determination of the Punisher, ultimately discovering a total of 61 comic book covers featuring billiards. But, to paraphrase the famous wall-crawler, with great research comes great responsibility, and simply sharing the covers is not a sufficient feat of billiards heroism. To take it farther, we must select the top quintile of those covers!  My choices of the Top 12 Billiards Comic Book Covers follow, though I’ve also included a gallery of all the covers at the end so you can choose for yourself.  Now, read on, enjoy and critique.  Excelsior!

 

  1. billiards comic bookArchie’s Mad House #21 (September, 1962). First published in 1959, Archie’s Mad House was designed to make no sense; by issue #19, it didn’t even feature Archie.  Instead, the title focused on monsters, space, and wacky stories, often parodying some aspect of popular culture. This particular issue came out one year after The Hustler, which may have been part of the cultural gag. Regardless, the cover illustration shows two space men heading toward a planet shaped like an 8-ball.  That’s my kind of interstellar travel destination.

 

  1. billiards comic bookFeature Comics #132 (March, 1949). Published by Quality Comics, Feature Comics ran during the Golden Age of Comics, from the late 1930s to circa 1950. While many characters were introduced, the most noteworthy was Doll Man, created by Will Eisner, who also created The Spirit. Unfortunately named, Doll Man had the power to shrink his physical size, long before there was an Atom or Ant Man. Doll Man outlived his publisher, as the character was eventually acquired by DC Comics, and Doll Man became a member of the Freedom Fighters, as well as the All-Star Squadron.   Though this particular cover is uninspiring (and specious, given the hat-wearing felon is shooting the 8-ball rather than the cue ball) I nonetheless appreciate the nostalgic value, as these super groups were part of my youth.

 

  1. billiards comic bookSpider-Man’s Tangled Web #13 (June, 2002). I’ll admit it. The appeal of this cover has less to do with the billiards and more to do with my childhood obsession both with Spider-Man and the Marvel Universe of b-rated comic book villains. The setting for this cover is the Bar With No Name, a safe haven for Marvel villains. Presumably, Spider-Man intruded on a friendly game of pool between the two gents with cue sticks, Mr. Hyde and Whirlwind. And, now the interruption has drawn the ire of a gaggle of other costumed nemeses, including Vulture, Boomerang, Matador, Stilt Man, Rocket Racer, and a couple of other gnarly fellas.

 

  1. billiards comic bookCasper the Friendly Ghost #142 (June, 1970). This amiable phantasm has been around since the 1930s, though he didn’t get his own comic until 1949 when Harvey Comics purchased the character outright. This particular cover is a delight because it not only shows Casper’s trick shot showmanship, pocketing at least three balls, with two more freakishly destined for corner pockets, but also revels in his innocence, as he floats into the table (which I’m thinking is not allowed by the BCA) and – oops – also sinks the cue in the side.

 

  1. billiards comic bookAngel & Faith #11 (February, 2015). Joss Whedon struck gold with his series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Angel & Faith is a Dark Horse title that continues the Buffy story by focusing on the stories of Angel and Faith Lehane.  Well, I never watched Buffy, so it’s all gibberish to me, but Scott Fischer’s cover is top-notch. (No surprise from the man who lent his skills and imagination to the Dungeon & Dragons: Monster Manual.) The cover features a menacing individual, gripping an 8-ball and impaled cleanly by a cue stick. A rack of skeletal billiards balls in the background. The scene looks like something out of my Top 10 Billiards Brawls.

 

  1. billiards comic bookForeskin Man #2 (2011). Circumcision has found a new enemy in Foreskin Man, aka Miles Hastwick, curator of the Museum of Genital Integrity. Created by Matthew Hess and published by Male Genital Mutilation Bill Comics, Foreskin Man, with his Herculean physique, seems to have the upper hand on the grimacing mohel, so I’m not sure why the hero feels compelled to wield an 8-ball.  And, then there’s the bigger question which makes the whole comic’s mission a bit suspect:  why is the brit malah happening on a pool table???

 

  1. billiards comic bookThe Flintstones and Pebbles #55 (December, 1969). I already knew from the 1960 Flintstones episode “At the Races” that the man from Bedrock could shoot pool. But, this cover does a great job of injecting the prehistoric scenery – in this case, a long-necked, fanged, reptilian creature – into the pool game. It is also repurposing the idea of using animals for tools and appliances, a popular Flintstones mechanism. Besides, Amazon sells more than 100 bridges of all shapes and sizes, including moose heads, bats, and spiders. Is it really so implausible that a snagglesaurus could be used for a similar purpose?

 

  1. billiards comic bookSilent Hill: Dead/Alive #3 (February, 2006). Pretty much anything in the Silent Hill franchise is disturbing, and this comic book cover by Ted McKeever and Chris Bolton is no exception. The art shows a quartet of hideous monsters gathered around a pool table, where one of them is shooting the cue ball at an ocular billiard ball drawn disproportionately large. This is certainly far more gruesome than anything from the pseudo-horror billiards shows I’ve reviewed, such as the “Pool Sharks” episode of Monsters or The Understudy: Graveyard Shift II.

 

  1. billiards comic bookNew Funnies: Woody Woodpecker #187 (September, 1952). In 1999, the “Cue the Pool Shark” episode of The New Woody Woodpecker established that this red-white-and-blue avian can shoot some stick. But, this cover takes us back 47 years. Even then, Woody could rock the baize, showing off some mean masse skills to his feathered brethren. Granted, the kiddies have no respect for the game, morphing it into something like pool roller hockey.  But, that’s cool – there are a lot of hybrid billiards sports out there (e.g., Pool Bowling with Jimmy Kimmel; Poolball – aka pool + soccer; etc.).

 

  1. billiards comic bookRichie Rich Digest Winners #11 (November, 1981). Winning the prize for most billiards comic book covers is Richie Rich, the little boy zillionaire, with six different covers from 1973 (Richie Rich Fortunes #11) to this 1981 cover. Though other covers had better puns (“This table must have cost pool-enty!”), I selected this one for its uniquely designed pool table in the shape of a dollar sign.  Too far-fetched? I think not…just take a look at these real unusually shaped tables (a coffin? a banana?).  I think Richie might have been ahead of his time.

 

  1. billiards comic bookSleepwalker #2 (July, 1991). Do you ever play pool to relieve some stress? Jeff Hagees did. But, when his stress turned into gambling debt, and he was circumstantially fired by his employer, this engineer sought revenge by becoming the criminal 8-Ball, with a pool-rack shaped hovercraft, a killer cue stick (literally), and a team of goons, including 6-Ball, 9-Ball, and 11-Ball, who wielded exploding billiards balls.  The best part: the 8-ball for a dome!

 

 

  1. billiards comic bookHouse of Secrets #127 (January, 1975). Most known for introducing the character The Swamp Thing, House of Secrets from DC Comics focused on mystery, fantasy, and horror stories, often with several anthologized in one comic. This issue includes the 36-page story “Death on Cue!,” in which a pool hall bum steals a magic cue from an old man and beats him to death with it. But, the dead man’s ghost returns and enacts revenge, first beating him, and then shrinking him, as evidenced on the cover. It’s then unlucky 13 for the killer who is ultimately crushed between two deadly rolling balls.

 

Did I omit one of your favorite covers?  Take a look at the complete collection of 61 covers and let me know which would have made your Top 12 list.  And if you come across any covers that I’ve overlooked, send me an email or leave me a comment.

Living Single – “Another Saturday Night”

Picture this television series: A group of six individuals in their 20s and 30s.  The men in the group share an apartment. So do the women. Both apartments are in the same building.  Among the individuals, there is romantic tension, sexual tension, and yes, even real relationships.  Jokes abound about living in New York City.

So, here’s my question: Were the people you pictured white or black? If they were black, chances are you may have been thinking about the Fox sitcom Living Single that aired for five seasons starting in 1993.  If they were white, then you were probably picturing Friends, the NBC sitcom that aired a year later and lasted a decade. These shows were more similar than many people wish to admit.

Living SingleBoth shows were popular, though Friends had a viewership (25-30 million) almost three times as large as Living Single.  Both shows were also pretty terrible, in my humble opinion.  But, more to the point of this blog, both shows managed to weave in some billiards, with Living Single making it far more the centerpiece of an episode than Friends.

In March 1995, Living Single aired “Another Saturday Night,” the 22nd episode in its second season.  The episode is available to watch here. The billiards plot is paper-thin.  Overton (John Henton) gets hustled out of $200 at the pool hall.  Khadijah (Queen Latifah) offers to help Overton get his money back. Along with Synclaire (Kim Coles), Overton’s girlfriend, the trio go to the pool hall and challenge the two flimflammers to a double-or-nothing game of mixed doubles against Overton and Khadijah.  Initially feigning ignorance about the game, Khadijah then turns on her skills and wins back the money with a one-hand shot.

Not satisfied to just win $200 with “the best streak of beginner’s luck [she’s] ever had,” she agrees to play again, upping the bet to $500, using her rent money.  Down five balls pretty quickly, Khadijah then slips, suffering a wrist injury that prevents her from finishing the match.  The opposing team has the option to pair Overton with another woman (or he forfeits).  They choose “Mary Tyler Poppins” (i.e., Synclaire), who, painting her nails, looks completely disinterested.  But, of course, they chose wrong, as Synclaire turns out to be the real shark, running the table and winning the game and the bet on a six-rail shot, no less.  The lesson to the hustlers: “Deceit and duplicity don’t pay…although in this case, they did pay for us,” says Synclaire.

To my knowledge, Friends never went full-tilt-billiards, but in October 1996, the episode “The One with the Flashback” (Season 3, Episode 6), did introduce some billiards humor, when Ross (David Schwimmer) and Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) reminisced about their almost-hookup on the pool table.  The specific scene is here.

Ross and Phoebe attempt to take their passion to the baize, only to suffer multiple problems, including Ross hitting his head (twice) on the overhead light, Ross fumbling to get the balls off the table, Ross getting his foot stuck in a pocket, and Ross having trouble with the “stupid balls in the way,” which promptly kills the mood.

Get it?  As I said already, I never understood why people thought these shows were any good.

Bye Bye Baby

In theory, 85 minutes is not a significant amount of time.  After all, a typical day can be divided into almost 17 consecutive 85-minute blocks of time.

Bye Bye BabyYet, as I suffered through the 85-minute film Bye Bye Baby, I started to wonder about the power of that single chunk of time.  Unquestionably, I had ceded 85 minutes of my frenetic life for the higher purpose of ensuring the comprehensiveness of my billiards movie blog, but was the sacrifice worth it?  What else has been, or could have been, accomplished with the same amount of time?

Before entertaining that question, let’s focus on the film. Directed by Erico Oldoini, Bye Bye Baby was released in Italy in 1988 and a year later in the United States. The movie stars former supermodel Carol Alt and Luca Barbareschi respectively as Sandra and Paolo, a couple from Milan whose marital troubles lead them through a series of fights, divorce, affairs, betrayals, abandonments, trysts, some escapades on the Mauritius Islands, more fights, more betrayals, and a near fatal car accident.  Along the way, Sandra falls for a dreamy doctor, and Paolo gets involved with Lisa, a professional pool shark, played by Danish model Brigitte Nielsen.

Essentially, this movie is a vehicle for two ‘80s models, Ms. Alt and Ms. Nielsen, to act quasi-sexy, bend over pool tables, wear revealing swimsuits, and engage in B-rated lovemaking scenes that lack even the suggested nudity.  For Ms. Alt, who appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1982, and was on the cover of more than 500 magazines in the 1980s, Bye Bye Baby timed with her decision to start acting in European films around 1986.  For Ms. Nielsen, the timing was a less fortuitous. Having married Sylvester Stallone in 1985 and gained fame through her iconic tough-woman roles in Red Sonja, Rocky IV, and Cobra, by 1988 she was already divorced and starring in bottom-of-the-bucket films.

Bye Bye BabyBye Bye Baby did nothing to help these ladies’ careers. (In fact, the movie earned Ms. Nielsen a Razzie for Worst Actress in 1990.) The plot is hackneyed, the script is vapid, the acting is wooden, the attempts at humor are misguided, and the music, which includes tracks by Ms. Nielsen, is repetitive and misplaced. The critic for the Los Angeles Times said it well:

The plot is nothing more than an endless, deja vu -provoking cycle of cheating lovers; the profane and daringly banal dialogue seems almost wholly improvised…; and it seems designed as a sex comedy, though there’s not much sex and even less comedy. It might not be too egregious an example of crying “wolf” to warn at this point that Bye Bye Baby is just about as howlingly rotten as any movie ever made.[1]

But, hey, I’ve endured my share of lemons, since launching 8 Ball on the Silver Screen.  I can deal with low-budget cinema.  What I cannot tolerate is terrible on-screen billiards, and in this category, Ms. Nielsen is in a league unto herself.  Starring as a top-ranked player, who competes in a mix of regular billiards and the Italian game of 5-pins, Ms. Nielsen can barely hold a cue stick, never mind take a stroke. It is embarrassing watching her stumble her way through the various billiards sequences.  Even with the mediocre editing, and the occasional creative five-pins shot, it’s still painful viewing. (For a more engaging portrayal of 5-pins or the related game goriziana, check out the far more satisfying Italian movie The Pool Hustlers.)

Given this abomination of a film, one can appreciate the impetus for my original question about what else can be accomplished in 85 minutes.  It turns out a whole helluva lot.

Keeping with the cinematic milieu, a far better use of 85 minutes would be to watch Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981); the gut-busting mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap (1984); Gary Cooper in High Noon (1952); or Fruitvale Station (2013), the racially charged film by Ryan Coogler based on the real-life subway shooting of Oscar Grant. Or, if music is your thing, spend the 85 minutes listening to Arcade Fire’s album Reflektor.

History can, in fact, be made in 85 minutes.  In 1908, the Tigers lost the final fifth game of the World Series to the Cubs in a game that lasted 85 minutes. A leatherback turtle set the world record for a marine dive by holding its breath for 85 minutes.

So, whether it’s the amount of time it takes to make an LL Bean Boot[2], the amount of time one person needs to make seven kid-friendly freezer meals[3], or the amount of time a quintet of British rotary clubs spent preparing 12,000 meals as part of a Stop Hunger campaign,[4] the evidence is everywhere that the time could have been better spent.

Bye bye Bye Bye BabyI want my 85 minutes back.

[1]       http://articles.latimes.com/1989-05-29/entertainment/ca-797_1_bye-brigitte-nielsen-film-review

[2]       https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/10/llbean-duck-boot-labor-shoes-maine/410863/

[3]       http://newleafwellness.biz/2015/05/20/seven-kid-friendly-freezer-meals-in-85-minutes/

[4]       http://www.actonboxboroughrotary.org/2016/02/12/stop-hunger-now-event-12000-meals-in-85-minutes/

Furniture to Go – “Pool Table”

In the 1990s, if one was asked about humorous repair shows on television, the press-the-buzzer answer for most Americans would have been Home Improvement, the ABC sitcom that starred Tim Allen as President of the Binford Tool Company and the host of the DIY home improvement show “Tool Time.”

Furniture to Go

Ed Feldman (left) and Joe L’Erario, hosts of Furniture to Go

But, for a small population of Philadelphians, humorous repair was synonymous with Joe L’Erario and Ed Feldman, stars of The Learning Channel series Furniture to Go, which aired from 1993 to 1997.  The two furniture repairmen from the City of Brotherly Love somehow carved out a niche and developed a loyal following in the crowded how-to television genre by intertwining their bonhomie and bad humor with cinematic references and an easygoing approach to their craft.

Over the course of four years, the pair channeled their restorative powers toward a panoply of furniture, from French Deco cocktail tables and walnut pews to poplar armoires, mahogany throne chairs, and Old World roll-top desks.  And, in 1996, for their 49th episode “Pool Table,” they tackled – you guessed it – the refurbishing of an old pool table.  The full episode is available to watch here.

Like most Furniture to Go episodes, “Pool Table” begins with a cinematic interstitial. Mr. Feldman plays Minnesota Fats, and Mr. L’Erario plays Bert Gordon, in a black-and-white parody of The Hustler, which also randomly weaves in a reference to “my friend Harvey” from The Honeymooners billiards episode “The Bensonhurst Bomber.” (Other episodes have lampooned films, such as Arsenic and Old Lace, A Clockwork Orange, and On the Waterfront.)

After the clip, Mr. Feldman and Mr. L’Erario take the viewer to Monarch Billiards in Crum Lynne, Pennsylvania, where they have been contracted by the owner to repair an ash pool table (as opposed to the nearby $56,000 table with ­the Carpathian Elm aprons and legs with hand-carved mahogany lions).

Furniture to GoWith table in hand, they return to their studio to begin the restoration, which includes three stages: (1) refinishing the wood; (2) repairing the leather pockets; and (3) refelting the table. Though each stage is intended to be straight-forward, there are a sufficient number of steps involved to make one admire the difficulty of the artistry from afar.

For example, in the first phase, when Mr. L’Erario seeks to replace the “ugliest color finish he’s ever seen,” he takes the viewer through the following steps: sanding, cleaning, tack ragging, masking off, mixing (clear lacquer, burnt sienna japan color, and red mahogany stain), straining the mix, adding fisheye destroyer, spraying, adding a second layer of color (pure golden oak), spraying again, and finally, spraying a semi-gloss lacquer.

All the while, the duo engage in a series of terrible jokes, many with a nod to movies and celebrities.  Describing the legs of the pool table, Mr. Feldman says, “These legs aren’t that attractive either…They’re kind of like my aunt’s leg.” To which Mr. L’Erario replies, “They’re kind of like Ernest Borgnine’s legs.” Referring to the flattening agent in the semi-gloss lacquer, Mr. Feldman asks, “Flattening agent? Is that what Kate Moss uses?”

By the end of “Pool Table,” after the pockets have been treated with mink oil and the rails have been refelted using a rawhide hammer to secure the fabric beneath the splines, the table is reassembled using just a ratchet wrench (“Use the Ratchet. Miss Ratchet. Nurse Ratchet.”), and becomes the setting for a friendly game of billiards.

Though Furniture to Go only lasted a few years, the repair pair have channeled their skills and zany charm through a variety of off-camera activities, including authoring The Furniture Guys Book in 1999 and teaching classes at the Art Institute of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania, as well as have appeared on numerous talk shows, such as Good Morning America, Regis and Cathy Lee, Maury Povich and The View.

However, for true zealots of the show, the great news may be the team’s return to television.  In March 2017, a pre-production announcement for their new show The Old Furniture Guys lit up YouTube. For everyone who can’t wait to watch and once again wish to see these guys “lay down some gorgeous Charlie Sheens,” your prayers may have been finally answered.

Mr. Show – “Van Hammersly”

American History. Science.  Mathematics. Taught by the wrong educator, these can be dry subjects. But, what if you could learn about these subjects in an exciting, entertaining format from a world-wide billiards champion using nothing more than a pool table, balls, and cues?

That would be genius!  Or, if not genius, than downright, gut-busting, absurd.

Van HammerslySuch was the premise of the 1996 “Van Hammersly” sketch from Season 2, Episode 4, of the Emmy-nominated HBO comedy series Mr. Show, starring and hosted by Bob Odenkirk and David Cross.

Across the 30 episodes that aired between November 1995 and December 1998, Mr. Show lampooned everything from traditionalism to capitalism to organized religion with hilarious sketches that earned the show the 3rd greatest sketch comedy TV show of all time, according to Rolling Stone.[1]

Today, most people associate Mr. Odenkirk with the dubious, silver-tongued lawyer Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad and its spin-off Better Call Saul.  But, long before assuming the role of the smooth-talking attorney, Mr. Odenkirk portrayed a plethora of memorable characters on Mr. Show, including Van Hammersly, a cheeseball billiards champ hawking a line of educational video cassettes that are equivalent to earning your GED.  You can watch the full “Van Hammersly” sketch here.

The 150-second faux infomercial is must-see TV.  “Van Hammersly” begins with an introduction his first videocassette, “I Oughta Be in Pictures,” which “showcases his incredible talent and passion for the golden age of film.”  Featuring billiards balls named after Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart (“Judy, Judy, Judy”)[2] and the Three Stooges, Van Hammersly engages with, and then pockets, the balls as they interact at a 1952 Hollywood Awards show.

In the second video, we’re “off to the races as Van recounts the running of the 1974 Kentucky Derby the only way he knows how – with a pool table!”  Shooting each ball (horse) into a pocket, Van Hammersley details the race, rattling off with gusto a series of fictional equines:  Mr. Fasthorse, Papa’s Delicate Condition, Kystallnacht, Batman: The Horse, Nice ‘N’ Sticky, Stinkfinger, If Mandy Patinkin Was a Horse, and (“bringing up the rear”), Ol’ Felcher.[3]

Van HammerslyOther videos in Van’s series detail the history of mass transportation; science; mathematics; American history (“And that’s when Lincoln said [sinking the ball] don’t dis my homies.”); Renaissance painting, oceanography, corn futures, belly dancing; December 7th, 1941; billiards, rock lyrics, and many, many more!

Whether because of the memorable nut-job one-liners, the signature physical gestures, or the ludicrous concept, “Van Hammersly” often ranks among the most popular of the 157 Mr. Show sketches.[4]

And yet, ironically, the concept of teaching academic subjects through billiards is neither fictitious nor far-fetched.  Many probably remember watching in elementary school the 27-minute educational vignette Donald in Mathmagic Land that explains math angles to Donald Duck through a game of three-cushion billiards.  In a similar vein (though very poorly executed), the Australian Commonwealth Unit commissioned a series of educational “message films” in 1972. One such short film was “The Billiard Room” which lamely tried to teach the adult learning process through a game of snooker.

More recently, the National Film Board of Canada aired the “Let’s Play Long Billiards” episode of their Discover Science television series in which they explain the effects of colliding forces through a massive game of billiards. And in January 2015, the Science Channel’s wonderful series Outrageous Acts of Science featured billiards trick shot artist Florian “Venom” Kohler in an episode of “Fact or Faked” which asked real scientists to explain the science behind his improbable shots.

Maybe “Van Hammersly” is not so preposterous after all.  Anyone up for a billiards lesson on Zombies in Popular Media? Patternmaking for Dog Garments? Queer Musicology? Science from Superheroes?[5]

[1]        “40 Greatest Sketch-Comedy TV Shows of All Time,” Rolling Stone, March 27, 2015.

[2]    The best part is while the origin of the “Judy, Judy, Judy” line is murky, it is always attributed to Cary Grant, not Humphrey Bogart. http://www.carygrant.net/articles/judy.htm

[3]       Still don’t get the pun?  Look it up. #NSFW.

[4]      http://www.vulture.com/2015/11/every-mr-show-sketch-ranked.html

[5]       Yes, these really are the names of courses currently taught on college campuses. (http://socawlege.com/the-15-most-ridiculous-college-courses-you-wont-believe-are-being-taught/)

Wanted! – The Original Billiards Movies

The turn into the 20th century was an exciting time for movies.  In 1900, the first films appeared, as defined by incorporating basic editing techniques and narrative.  One-reel films, running five to eight minutes, replaced the earlier single-shot films. Distribution exploded, with the number of US theaters skyrocketing from a handful in 1904 to 8,000-10,000 in 1908.  By 1910, several “firsts” had occurred: Hollywood produced its first film (Old California by D.W. Griffith); Life of Moses became the first multi-reel film to show; and a man jumped out of a burning hot balloon into the Hudson River, marking the first movie stunt.

But, there is an even greater reason to landmark 1910.   Yes, ninety-seven years ago, the first two billiards movies, both French, were created: Calino joue au billard and The Devil’s Billiard Table.  Unfortunately, I have not been able to locate either of these films, and I cannot confirm they still exist.  So, I beseech my readers:  If you can help me locate either of these movies, please contact me directly.

Calino joue au billard

Calino joue au billardAt the turn of the century, the leader in European cinema was the Pathé Company, which was revolutionizing the film industry by manufacturing its own equipment and mass producing movies under one director. In 1907, the Pathé Company innovated once more when it launched a series of one-reel comedies starring André Deed.

The only serious competitor to the Pathé Company was Gaumont Pictures, which was just a quarter its size. In 1908, Leon Gaumont told his production head they needed a comic series similar to that of Pathé.  The net result, beginning in 1909, was the Calino series of one-reels, directed by Romeo Bosetti.  Calino was portrayed by Clément Mégé, an “acrobatic veteran of the circus and music hall.” [1]

In total, Gaumont produced 23 Calino films between 1909 and 1910.  Calino joue au billard, which translates to Calino Playing Billiards, released in 1910.  Like all movies of that time, it was silent and black-and-white. The six-minute comedy largely depicted the troubles and panics caused by Calino around the billiard table.  Unfortunately, no more information is available.

The Devil’s Billiard Table

Devil's Billiard TableThere is some confusion surrounding the French comedy film The Devil’s Billiard Table (originally titled Le Billard du Diable). Released in the US as a split-reel along with Faithful Unto Death, the movie has been erroneously attributed to the directors Georges Hatot and Victorin-Hippolyte Jasset.  But, in fact, that duo directed Faithful. The directors and actors behind The Devil’s Billiard Table remain an unsolved mystery.

What is more certain is that the movie was created by Éclair Films, a French film manufacturing company that one year later opened an American branch, the Éclair American Company, in Fort Lee to churn out short films. [2]

Judging by its length, 83 meters (272 feet), The Devil’s Billiard Table was approximately three minutes in length. A description of the film comes directly from IMDB:

Mr. X is a great billiard player, and is quite proud of his accomplishments in this direction. He never misses to challenge any of his friends, and, of course, never fails to come out victorious. As time goes on, his friends grow tired of being continually beaten, and besides, they are goaded by the knowledge, that despite their best efforts, they are unable to humiliate the proud Mr. X. At about this time, Mephistopheles happens along and tells the young friends of Mr. X, that if they will give him their souls, he will, in turn, challenge the mighty billiard player, and beat him at his own game. So keen has become the desire to avenge themselves upon their adversary that they make the compact. Accordingly Mephistopheles challenges Mr. X, who readily accepts, feeling confident, of course, of victory. He does not play very long, however, before he realizes that he is playing against some greater power than himself and all too soon, he is beaten by the artful wiles of his enemy.[3]

Regrettably, the consensus online is that the progenitors of the billiards movie genre — Calino joue au billard; The Devil’s Billiard Table; Billiards Mad (1912); and A Game of Pool (1913) – are all now gone.  If this is true, we should mourn the passing of this noteworthy quartet.  Fortunately, the W.C. Fields’ short film Pool Shark (1915) is widely available, thanks to its distribution by Criterion, making it now the grand patriarch of the genre.

[1]       The Ciné Goes to Town: French Cinema, 1896-1914, Updated and Expanded Edition

[2]       http://www.fortleefilm.org/studios.html

[3]       http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4906384/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1