10 things with surprising second lives (like ‘Car Talk’)
While zombies are still duking it out with vampires for primacy in pop culture and as metaphors for pretty much everything else in life, we’ve got to give the edge to the zombie. Vampires are relegated to silliness such as the “Twilight” series (with “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 2” movie not due until Nov. 16) and “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” (doing a somewhat lackluster $16.3 million box office in its late June opening weekend), while zombies intrude increasingly in our lives. There are reports of zombie attacks in the news, with the most gruesome being over Memorial Day weekend when a man had to be shot repeatedly by police to make him stop tearing off another man’s face with his teeth.
But not all real-life zombies are scary. Cambridge has a homegrown entity that is getting its life force removed but will live on regardless: “Car Talk,” the automotive advice show on National Public Radio.
The show, hosted at WBUR-FM by Tom and Ray Magliozzi, aka Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers, ends in October but “will continue to be distributed by NPR drawing on material from their 25 years of show archives,” according to an NPR press release. The brothers attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have offices in Harvard Square and get hands-on with cars whenever they want to at their Good News Garage at 75 Hamilton St., Cambridgeport. Many think it’s fantastic that these native sons, so quick to laugh and helpful to anyone with a phone and a problem, will stay on the airwaves in some form. As listener Ray DiCasparro said, “For NPR to state they will rebroadcast only the ‘best’ shows means NPR will broadcast all the shows.”
But Ira Glass, another icon of public radio since creating “This American Life” in 1995, respectfully hopes “Car Talk” will stay dead. In a June 25 post on Current.org, he explained why, despite his admiration for the Magliozzis and his enjoyment of the show:
I also completely understand why program directors want to keep Car Talk on the air after it stops making new episodes in October. There’s still a big audience. The show won’t sound so different. It brings in listeners for other weekend programs and the schedule as a whole. And if it’s not there, people will yell … But — with all respect to [producer] Doug Berman and my colleagues at Car Talk Plaza — I think when they stop making new episodes in October, they should be pulled from Saturday mornings. A show that’s 100 percent reruns doesn’t fit with our mission as public broadcasters. I don’t think it’s justifiable.
… For all of public radio’s successes, the part of our mission we’ve always neglected the most is innovation. Our biggest shows — “All Things Considered,” “Morning Edition,” “Marketplace,” “Fresh Air,” “A Prairie Home Companion” — are decades old. The average age of our listeners keeps creeping upward. At 53, I am one of the younger public radio stars. My show has been on the air 17 years. We need to make space for new shows, new talent, new ideas. That’s our mission, and ultimately, it’ll be good business, too, to have exciting new shows bring in new audiences.
Will he be listened to? Doubtful. F. Scott Fitzgerald died in 1940 “believing himself a failure. The obituaries were condescending, and he seemed destined for literary obscurity,” according to his academic champions at the University of South Carolina, a film of his “The Great Gatsby” comes out Christmas Day, and its the fifth filmed version — another sign of enduring life for a writer dumb enough to say that “There are no second acts in American life.”
These days it seems like there’s nothing but second acts in American life, and you don’t even need the success and charisma of the Magliozzis to guarantee it.
Here’s a look at some of the many ways institutions, pop culture artifacts, people and ideas can come shambling back to life, shocking the killers and sometimes even the corpses themselves:
Many people met the zombie bank with the Great Recession that began in 2008, when these institutions could have and perhaps should died with the bursting of a real estate bubble based on overly complex financial instruments relying on bad loans. But zombie banks — defined by Investopedia as “a bank or financial institution with negative net worth [that] continue to operate as a result of government backings or bailouts” — actually started stumbling around in earnest after the 1987 savings and loan scandals. A quarter-century of experience hasn’t taught regulators much about dealing with them; a June 9 item in The Telegraph showed the problem is epidemic in the U.K., as its Liam Halligan offered this bit of apocalyptic rhetoric: “Until now, the Western world’s response to ‘subprime’ — a bank insolvency-led crisis — has been to follow the ‘Japanese model.’ This amounts to covering up for the banks, allowing them to pretend they have assets they don’t, and don’t have losses they do, and then ‘praying for a miracle’ that capital levels are somehow restored. History shows this model doesn’t work. It was only in 2010 that Japan’s GDP recovered to its 1991 pre-bust level.”
There was a time people thought the Internet changed the laws of economics, business and, well, the law, and that time was from June 1999, when 17-year-old Shawn Fanning launched an online peer-to-peer media exchange site apparently named after a hairstyle, to July 2001, when a court injunction sparked by a Recording Industry Association of America took effect. For two years, Napster was a name almost impossible to escape and one that embodied a lifestyle embraced by a generation. It led the way to torrenting; it also tortured the recording industry until it was weak enough to embrace iTunes like a drowning concert pianist embraces a Casio VL-Tone VL-1.
Fanning and fellow Napster brat Sean Parker have captured lots of buzz for teaming again on Airtime, which is meant to be Chatroulette with fewer penises and premiered Tuesday, but their first creation actually lurched onward until Dec. 1, lasting a whole decade on aspirations of building a paid subscription service. Roxio bought the bankrupt Napster’s technology portfolio, brand name and trademarks for $5.3 million in 2002 and adopted its name in 2005. Best Buy bought the Roxio version of Napster in 2008 for $121 million; now Rhapsody owns the Best Buy version of Napster, with that on-demand music subscription service getting its customers and killing the company name (while Best Buy gets part of Rhapsody in return). It’s not known what Napster cost this time around.
Charles Schulz drew the beloved “Peanuts” newspaper comic strip for a half-century, and it was published from Oct. 2, 1950, to Feb. 13, 2000, as the last strips Schulz drew before his death ran out. And that’s it, right? Time to make room for new comic strips? Or maybe do that thing where someone takes over where the creator left off, as Selby Kelly carried on “Pogo” for two years after husband Walt Kelly died? No.
Cue the “Peanuts” reruns.
The comic strip was read by 355 million people around the world, and at least some of them didn’t want to let go. There was also licensing to think about. “By 1999 there were 20,000 different new products each year adorned by ‘Peanuts’ characters. In 1994 Mr. Schulz was inducted into the Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association Hall of Fame,” The New York Times noted in Schulz’s obituary.
Reruns weren’t necessarily Schulz’s intention. The artist, 78, had announced his retirement Dec. 14, 1999; he just happened to die of complications from cancer the next Feb. 12, the day before that last Sunday strip was published. But in the year after he died, 2,460 of the strip’s 2,600 newspaper clients kept publishing reruns of his work, according to the United Media syndicate, with some weekly and monthly publications picking it up as some dailies dropped it. “The immense outpouring of reader affection and media coverage after Schulz’s death caused a number of papers to rethink their plans,” David Astor wrote in Brandweek.
As of late 2010, as Universal Media transferred rights to the strip to Iconix Brand Group, “Peanuts” was still in more than 2,200 newspapers in 75 countries and 21 languages.
Yes, President Bill Clinton was impeached after an exhaustive investigation by independent counsel. It’s just that most of that investigation was into a land deal called Whitewater, while Clinton was impeached for having oral sex with an intern — a result some might compare with Al Capone being imprisoned for tax evasion instead of being a gangster, except for the fact that was Al freakin’ Capone making lots of money by robbing and killing people. Clinton’s crime: losing money on riverfront property meant for vacation homes.
Whitewater as a land deal dates back to 1978, before the economy tanked and discouraged the building of second homes on White River in Arkansas. Whitewater the investigation goes back to January 1994, when Attorney General Janet Reno appointed the first special counsel to investigate. That counsel, Robert B. Fiske Jr., got “broad authority to investigate Whitewater and any related activity,” as the Encyclopedia of Arkansas puts it, and Fiske and those who followed wound up using that clause to its fullest extent:
Clinton’s firing seven people from the White House travel office, or “Travelgate.” FBI files on Republicans winding up with a White House employee, or “Filegate.” Embezzlement by Hillary Rodham Clinton’s partner in the Rose Law Firm, Webster Hubbell, whom the Clintons had made a deputy attorney general. The suicide of Vincent Foster. Business practices at Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan; a Clinton friend’s small-business lending operations; another friend’s cable television business in the 1980s; Clinton’s campaigns for governor.
“While none of the investigations of Whitewater and the business, political and governmental practices of the Clintons and their aides uncovered proof of any wrongdoing by the president or his wife, Starr kept up the pursuit,” the encyclopedia says, explaining that the investigation dragged on so long and looked into so many dark corners that it even turned up allegations of Clinton making “sexual advances” on a woman named Paula Jones. “Starr sent FBI agents searching for evidence of other infidelities by Clinton.”
So after three years of failed investigations, it was a White House intern recorded by an acquaintance while talking about fooling around with the president that became conservatives’ road to impeachment — when, of course, the president tried to deny the sexual shenanigans. After five years, Republicans won impeachment in the House and lost in the Senate. After seven years, the investigation officially ended. After 10 years and $70 million, the independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation closed up shop.
The deaths of these authors bookended 1986, since Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard died in January and creepy sex writer V.C. Andrews died in December. Fortunately for fans of “Battlefield Earth” and “Flowers in the Attic,” respectively, these authors became astonishingly prolific after their deaths.
For Hubbard, it was his “Mission Earth,” described as a 10-volume novel encompassing some 1.2 million words, which was released in the three years starting 1985 as a kind of satiric sequel to “Battlefield Earth,” which was itself 1,000 pages long. Why Hubbard returned to writing science fiction after more than three decades of silence, especially in such massive quantities, isn’t definitively known, and there are theories he wrote it all back in 1973 or at least back in 1980-81, just before “Battlefield Earth” came out. Either way, he is reputed to have been given a snarky “most prolific dead author” Woodie award and suspected of having help with them, possibly from editor Robert Vaughn Young. (There are also two books Hubbard is credited as writing “with” others.) It was all weird enough to make people wonder why the new fiction had emerged at all, with one theory being that it would help boost the stature of the Scientology-owned publisher.
With Andrews, there’s no reason to wonder: Her publisher just wanted the money to keep coming in, and thanks to millions of teen girls seeking dark thrills, the Andrews name was a good brand. So Andrews has some 80 novels to her name, and maybe 71 of them were posthumous.
“For years after her death (whenever she really died — roll eyes), the publisher pretended she was still alive. Then they claimed that they were publishing the manuscripts VCA left behind. Then they claimed the ghostwriter was working from detailed outlines VCA left behind. Finally they gave up and admitted that the ghostwriter (Andrew Neiderman, who has published lots of novels under his own name) was writing the newer books from scratch. Which books were really written from unpublished VCA manuscripts (if any) or from detailed outlines she left behind (if any) is a question,” writes a blogger named Anne Marble.
Robert Ludlum is another zombie author brand. The writer of thrillers died in March 2001 with 22 novels credited to him, nearly all following “The Name Noun” construction such as “The Bourne Identity.” Five more are credited to Ludlum, with only one being considered completely his. And 16 more get the Ludlum brand without The Ludlum Hands touching The Ludlum Keyboard.
As a live musical satire of cheesy horror films and celebration of 1974-era sexual liberation, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” was a success, but as a 1975 movie meant to be sedately watched and enjoyed on its own merits, by all rights it could have and should have died with its poor reviews and almost universally bad reception in theaters. Within a year of its September premiere, though, “Rocky Horror” was revived as a midnight movie drawing endless hordes of leather-clad misfits seeking a community. In Cambridge, the AMC Loews Harvard Square 5 showed the movie weekly for decades, and news that the theater is closing Sunday has nearly been overshadowed by news “Rocky Horror” is losing its home. Not only does the movie draw Harvard, Lesley and Massachusetts Institute of Technology students from within the city; it lures kids from the seemingly endless colleges in Boston and from surrounding towns such as Arlington for whom escape from the suburbs is just a trudge, bike or bus ride away.
In the movie, a strait-laced pair of virgins played by Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon are enjoyably defiled when they stumble across a castle full of deviants led by omnisexual scientist Dr. Frank N. Furter. By the end of the movie, everyone has screwed everyone and they’re wearing fishnets (and singing) while they do it. Participation compels high school or college first-years into fetishistic, free-love territory many probably couldn’t have imagined just weeks earlier, and pretty soon they might be wearing fishnets as well and crooning the anthemic “Don’t dream it, be it.”
Powerful stuff, which is why the television show “Glee” has given a boost to a phenomenon that never quite died, a cinematic remake is rumored, the musical keeps getting put up and “Rocky Horror” gets credit as being one of the first cult films — the midnight movies people love because they are so weird and even bad that a love of them set fans apart from the rest of a bland and predictable society.
There were 79 episodes of “Star Trek” between September 1966 and June 1969. If you’re old enough, you may recall it as three years’ worth of a somewhat silly show in which space travelers fought lizard men. NBC canceled it because not enough people were watching.
Yet by 1972 it was already being called “the show that won’t die,” being aired in 55 countries and inspiring conventions drawing thousands of rabid fans. It’s inspired five spinoff television shows, a dozen movies and countless (because who has the strength to count?) books, comics and games.
As a show saved from cancellation once and since revived to an astonishing degree, it also served as a model for every fan-driven effort since to keep a show on the air, even if the details of those efforts vary enough to keep things spicy: “Family Guy” ran on Fox for three years starting in 1999 and returned in triumph in 2004 largely on the basis of huge DVD sales. “Futurama” took a more circuitous route back, lasting on Fox for four years starting in 1999 but returning to the cable channel Comedy Central in 2010 after strong demand shown for reruns and four straight-to-DVD movies that could be chopped up and shown as a 16-episode season. “Arrested Development” had three seasons on Fox — is there a trend here? — starting in 2003 and is finally set to return for 10 straight-to-Web episodes next year as a run-up to a movie. “Firefly” ran for a whole three months on Fox in 2002, but fans were passionate enough to justify extending the story with a 2005 feature film called “Serenity.”
Other TV shows have had similar fan rescues, some even not on Fox. “Jericho” returned to CBS after its 2006 premiere season because fans sent the studio 20 tons of peanuts. “Chuck” returned to NBC after two seasons starting in 2007 when fans showed support by eating at Subway.
In a final bit of weirdness for Fox, its five-season hit “Ally McBeal” had a second life also — while the series was still on the air. In 1999 episodes were recut and padded out, transformed from hourlong comedy-dramas with courtroom plots to half-hour sitcoms focusing on the characters’ love lives.
After Richard Nixon lost the presidency to Democrat John F. Kennedy in 1960 by 49.7 percent to 49.5 percent (although the margin in the electoral college was 303 to 219), he thought he could at least be Republican governor of California. Nope. Democrat Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Sr. beat him in the 1962 election, winning 52 percent of the vote to Nixon’s 47 percent.
A bitter Nixon decided he wanted out of politics. He held a press conference the day after the California election to rant at the media for 15 minutes about their favoritism (“You’ve had a lot of fun, you’ve had an opportunity to attack me … I think it’s time that our great newspapers have at least the same objectivity, the same fullness of coverage that television has”) and concluded by telling the world: “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore. Because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”
Imagine the world’s surprise, then, when Nixon — tanned, rested and ready, it’s said — ran again for president in 1968 and beat Vice President Hubert Humphrey after Lyndon Johnson declined to run for re-election. Nixon took 43 percent of the popular vote, even with spoiler candidate George Wallace taking another 14 percent, or 310 electoral votes versus Wallace’s 46 and Humphrey’s 191.
Then zombie Nixon won re-election in 1972 over liberal George McGovern (with 61 percent of the popular vote and a stunning 520 electoral votes), despite the looming Watergate scandal. He resigned and was impeached in August 1974. He died in April 1994 at 81, some 32 and 20 years, respectively, after the deaths of his political career. Now he’s just a head in a jar on “Futurama,” but he is leading the country yet again as president.
The Gadsden flag flew over the rebellious colonies in 1775, demanding that Britain not tread on it; the Confederate flag was last of real use in 1865, before the Union won the Civil War; and the Nazi swastika in traditional fascist red, white and black should have gone out of style in 1945 with the end of World War II.
Each still has its proponents, though, with all sharing a perverse faith that history went wrong and these banners are the signs of the truly righteous — the swastika for those who feel caucasians are superior to other races, for instance and the Confederate flag for those who like to remind people how great the South was before the Yankee aggressors had the temerity to insist the country break with the habit of enslaving people and not split in two over the disagreement. The Gadsden flag, as used for modern tea party purposes, is for those who feel the United States must return to small government now that a black man is president.
Increasingly the Nazi and Confederate arguments are losing out to what the fictional U.S. Sen. Jay Billington Bulworth called “a voluntary, free-spirited, open-ended program of procreative racial deconstruction.” Side arguments of the intolerant, such as the evils of homosexuality, are similarly fading as a source of strength for the flag-wavers.
They have their supporters, though, none of whom seem to understand the lack of glamor in flying the colors for losing wars fought by people claiming superiority. The unstated slogan of these flags: “We were beaten and humiliated for insisting without cause that we were better than everyone, and that’s why we’re awesome.”
The Gadsden flag, though, as adopted by the tea party, obscures rather than reveals the message. Its fans swear they’re all about issues, not race, and that their complacency during George W. Bush’s eight years in office but instant alarm when Barack Obama was sworn in is nothing but a coincidence. In adopting the Gadsden slogan insisting “Don’t Tread on Me,” though, they’re injecting a paralyzing poison into the body politic that needs to be working off the very recession they failed to stop over the previous eight years. They also forget that snakes may be able to fight, but you can’t reason with them and they don’t know anything about government.
No matter which way you look at it, this one’s controversial, but the story goes that Jesus was crucified by the Romans and was resurrected three days later, a major underpinning of one of the world’s most powerful theologies. Whether taken as metaphor or literal miracle, a man who began as a fairly unimportant rebel speaking truth to power is now a guiding light for much of humanity. Christ is a part of 79 percent of U.S. religions, according to the CIA Factbook, while the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found there were 2.2 billion Christians around the world in 2010, or nearly a third of the estimated global population of 6.9 billion.
Not bad for a dead guy, and certainly one of the greatest (or simply the greatest) second acts in history. But the resurrection tale also inspires some irreverence, and the writers of “Futurama” made “Sweet zombie Jesus!” one of the favorite epithets of the character Professor Farnsworth (starting with the Nov. 7, 1999 episode “When Aliens Attack,” credited by knowyourmeme.com as being the first use of the term). The popularity of the “zombie Jesus” idea has only grown, with efforts to turn Easter into Zombie Jesus Day, comedians having fun with the idea and even a 2007 short film. People who like the idea appreciate that Jesus told his adherents (in John 6:53): “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”