When people ask me how I came to love classic movies, there is a simple and definitive answer I can give them. The problem is most people have no idea what I am talking about.
“Mad Movies with the L.A. Connection” was the last TV show which I made a point of seeing each time it was broadcast. I watched it religiously when I was a kid on a local station every Saturday afternoon. I would memorize lines from new episodes and repeat them throughout the day, and well into the next week at school, where no one knew what I was babbling on about. A few years later, when there was cable TV in my house, I was delighted to find that it was playing in syndication on the nascent Nick at Nite, the evening, adult-oriented half of the Nickelodeon kids network. More recently, I was able to find other fans online, and through trading, was able to collect all 26 episodes of the show. Many of the episodes are in poor condition, having been dubbed from videotape to videotape countless times, but it was great to be able to see them again. Watching the show again after so many years was nostalgic to say the least, and I also realized there was a lot of humor that was well over my head the first time around.
The concept of “Mad Movies” was simple: take an old movie, edit it down to fit within the show’s 30-minute format, completely remove the soundtrack and replace it with comedy dialogue and silly sound effects. This was not the first time this had been done. The earlier TV show “Fractured Flickers” (1961-63) retooled silent films, and Woody Allen’s directorial debut, What’s Up Tiger Lily? (1966) was a comedy redubbing of a Japanese spy film. But “Mad Movies” was certainly the funniest application of the concept.
The show was a project of the L.A. Connection, a community comedy troupe founded in Hollywood in 1977. In addition to live performances, the group organized comedy workshops for kids and other community-oriented activities. They have been active in recent years, but the official L.A. Connection website does not appear to have been updated since 2007, and it is not clear what their current status is. Kent Skov was the leader of the group from the beginning, and would become the host and director of the TV program. The group cut their teeth by dubbing full-length features in front of a live audience at the Ken Theater in Los Angeles, in 1982. One of their early targets of their spoofing was Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, a 1958 science fiction B-film which they turned into a husband and mistress murder wife scenario. Since they were performing live, they had to play off mistakes. “We had a girl play both parts of a mistress and a wife,” Skov recalled. “She switched the parts by accident and the guy who played the husband said, ‘You sound more and more like my wife every day.’” Later the troupe moved to the Nuart Theater, and would sit in the front row and dub science fiction films such as Cat Women on the Moon (1953) and Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), while audiences behind them convulsed with laughter. Their success soon caught the attention of television, and the troupe signed on to overdub short clips from films for the ill-fated late-night show “The Thicke of The Night” in 1983. In 1984 they produced a pilot for “Mad Movies,” and produced 26 episodes the following year.
“Mad Movies” was clearly made on a low-budget, and in order to avoid licensing fees films in the public domain, such as Night of the Living Dead (1968) and A Star is Born (1937), were selected as the subjects of parody. In addition to one reinvented film for each episode, there were host segments featuring Skov, man-on-the-street interviews, and home movies sent in by viewers and redubbed by the L.A. Connection. Most episodes began with a short redubbed bumper, often self-referential. Vincent Price as a doctor in Shock (1946) tells his patient: “there is good news and bad news. The bad news is that you have only 30 minutes to live. The good news is that ‘Mad Movies’ is on now and you can watch the whole episode.” But without a doubt the funniest part of the show was the featured film.
Some of the movies parodied were already comedies to begin with. The original version of the Danny Kaye film The Inspector General (1949) probably has more laughs then the reimagined take, in which Kaye plays a singer named Michael Johnson who a whole town mistakes for his near-namesake Michael Jackson. But some decidedly unfunny movies were also sent up on “Mad Movies,” including Night of the Living Dead, which became the story of uninvited guests arriving to a party before preparations were complete, and Orson Welles’ The Stranger (1946), converted from the story of a Nazi hunter searching for the former head of a concentration camp to the tale of an incredibly pushy reporter who just wants an interview. The film-noir classic D.O.A. (1950) becomes a parody of “I Love Lucy,” seizing on a slight resemblance between star Edmund O’Brien and Desi Arnaz. Shirley Temple’s The Little Princess (1939) becomes the story of a little girl with a possessed doll, which yells “your mother sews socks that smell!”
A lot of the humor of “Mad Movies” derives from the goofy voices used to re-voice the dialogue. The voice actors seem to have delighted in doing impersonations of Peter Lorre, Andy Devine and Marlon Brando. Many of the jokes are unabashedly old-fashioned, and some of the comic exchanges seem to be straight from vaudeville. From the Night of the Living Dead episode, we have the following recycled gag:
-Hey did you take the road from town?
-Why, is it missing?
And from the Decameron Nights episode:
-What’s that on your head?
-A Grecian urn.
-What’s a Grecian urn?
-About $2.50 an hour.
Some jokes are picked out of action in the background of the scene. In the A Star is Born episode, the maitre’d of the Trocadero restaurant in Hollywood looks at his reservation book and says to himself, “Moses, party of 40,000.”
At times the jokes are rather puerile. In the Cyrano De Bergerac episode, Jose Ferrer is made to sing a new version of “Greensleeves.”
I wear lots of lace upon my shirt
So when I wipe my nose, it doesn’t hurt
You think it is disgusting, but no one knows
Because my sleeves are green and it doesn’t show
In the Ronald Reagan film This is the Army (1943), a drill sergeant subjects his troops to a stale joke:
A sergeant is sitting in a bar with two pigs in his lap. The bartender says “hey, you can’t bring those pigs in here,” and the sergeant says “these aren’t pigs, these are my private.”
Occasionally, the humor took a twist to the absurd. When Cyrano meets a nun, she talks only in a string of Latin phrases:
E pluribus unum, status quo, ipso facto, caveat emptor, veni vidi vici, habeas corpus, Nabisco, Ricky Ricardo, corpus delicti, holy Toledo. Et tu, Brute? Marco Polo…
Watching the shows again, I realize that some of the jokes were not exactly geared toward kids, and were over my head the first time I watched them. In the Nothing Sacred episode, Carol Lombard is made to say “I have got to thank them. I have got to tell them I love them. I have got to get those two things off my chest,” to which a passing waiter replies “good luck.” In the Perils of Pauline episode, Pauline’s husband pleads with her to come home and raise their children, throwing Pauline into a rage:
What are you saying? You know we don’t have any children to raise! And you know why we don’t. Because you can’t raise your…Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to bring that up…Doh, I’m sorry I just meant that I wanted something solid between us…Oh, I’m sorry!
Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon becomes the story of library police battling people that don’t return their books. After the librarian takes a phone call we have:
Librarian: That was my assistant librarian. The Joy of Sex is overdue. I know the last person to check it out was my boyfriend, Dr. Franz Turrel.
Sherlock Holmes: Did he learn anything from it?
Librarian: Not that I could tell.
Unfortunately, “Mad Movies” was not picked up for renewal after its first season. After a two-year syndicated run on Nickolodeon, it went off the air. In 1992, the L.A. Connection did a one-off show called “Movie Magic Mystery” for the A&E channel, but nothing more came of this. In recent years, Kent Skov has attempted to get back the rights to the show to give them a proper DVD release, but has been unsuccessful so far. Since the show made me a die-hard fan of classic films, I have since seen the original versions of all of the films parodied, but still occasionally find myself giving in to the guilty pleasures of watching the dubbed versions.
If you are interested in trading a set of Mad Movies on DVD, please contact me.