Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Ask The A.V. Club: April 27, 2007


A Few Of Your Favorite Strings

I was quite impressed when, in a previous Ask The A.V. Club, you identified the origin of the stereotypical "Asian music" that often pops up in TV shows, etc. when an Asian character appears. In a similar vein, I have been puzzled by a campy bit of music that is constantly showing up in cartoons, especially in episodes of The Simpsons. It's a waltzing, bubbly little pizzicato piece that sounds like it would fit right into a cheesy old instructional film. It usually shows up in some sort of goofily self-aware montage. The most specific example of the theme's use I can think of is in The Simpsons' "Last Exit To Springfield" episode, where it plays over the montage of Burns and Smithers running the plant on their own. It is also in the episode "Marge Gets A Job." It plays over the sequence showing the destination of a nuclear plant message-tube. The theme also pops up in episodes of Ren & Stimpy, in episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants, and dozens of other places where a cheesy bit of stock music is needed. Could you please tell me what this piece of musical fluff is and where it came from?


Donna Bowman has found her niche tracking down obscure scraps of music:

Thanks for the challenge, Kyle. I bet we're all humming the piece in our heads right now—a bright, fast pizzicato (plucked violin strings) figure punctuated by a bubbly warble at the end of the phrase. It has a '50s space-age bachelor-pad-music feel, and it gets trotted out for all kinds of cheeseball montages and fake commercials.


The only problem is that the Simpsons examples you mention aren't that piece. They're designed to sound like that piece. The occasional pop song aside, Alf Clausen composes the soundtrack music for The Simpsons, and in these two cases, he's clearly evoking that bit of production music—but they have different melodies, as a quick check of the Simpsons DVDs reveals.

You mention the nuclear-plant message-tube sequence in "Marge Gets A Job." Is it possible there's another clue there? That scene is an homage to the pneumatic tubes running under the streets of Paris that Antoine Doinel uses to send a mash note to his girl in Stolen Kisses (directed by François Truffaut in 1968). But the music we're looking for isn't in the original film.


The Ren & Stimpy lead initially looks like a dead end, too. As numerous fan sites of the show attest, hundreds of music cues from the cartoon came from the Associated Production Music library, a repository of stock music often plumbed by time- and cash-strapped music editors. While several of the pizzicato tunes often listed as appearing in R&S resemble the famous one—notably "Pizzicato Playtime" and "Plucking the Strings"—they aren't identical.

But a chance encounter with bumper music on the National Public Radio show Morning Edition uncovered pay dirt. Thank Carl Castle Almighty for the crazy-complete rundown that npr.org posts for each show, including each snippet of incidental music. After hearing the pizzicato theme following a brief report on how many TV ads targeting children are for trash they shouldn't be eating (answer: 50 percent!), I went to the web and found it listed as "Happy Go Lively." It's available on Music For TV Dinners (get it? commercials, kids, junk food?), and the composer is Laurie Johnson, a (male) veteran of TV and movie music best known for his work on Dr. Strangelove.


APM also has an archival version of the tune in their library (on recording KPM 81). You can hear the whole thing (rather than the 30-second snippet on most sites that sell the TV Dinners CD) at their website, apmmusic.com, if you're willing to navigate a rather complex Flash interface to find it. No doubt it wormed into the public consciousness in the first place through that library, by being purchased and used in various cartoons, commercials, and TV shows—and then by being parodied and pastiched in self-consciously retro evocations of the original. And now it's back in your head, Kyle. We hope you're inclined to thank us, rather than to hunt us down and kill us.

Rain Rain Go Away

Kevin Palka's question of 13 April got my memory churning. I vaguely remember watching a movie (reel-to-reel, of course)—this would be in the early '80s, when I was 7 or so—about a group of children who lived on Venus. The story took place at their school. Apparently, it rained every day on Venus except for one day of the year, when the sun finally came out and they could go outside and play. Children looked forward to this day more than anything else in their lives. I remember that one of the girls, for some reason, was locked into a cupboard on that day, and so missed out on all the fun. That's all I remember, and some days when I think about it I wonder if I'm making it up. But I'm pretty sure I'm not. Any ideas what it might be?


Ed Hoover

When I was young, my dad would play weird videos for me. Notably Pink Floyd's The Wall, which scared the crap out of me. During those times, I also watched a short film, maybe it was a music video, where there were children who could not go outside. It was always raining and gray, and the kids dressed alike. A main character in the story is a little girl who is always bullied. At some point she is locked in a closet. The story ends with the sun coming out and all the other children going outside to play in the sunshine for a very short amount of time. Is this associated with Pink Floyd in some way, and I'm just overlooking it, or was it just something my dad decided to tape?



I clearly remember this movie from when I was a kid. It took place on another planet or maybe in the future. I remember that it rained all the time, and the movie mostly took place in a school. The only plot points I really remember is that the kids are playing around and lock one of the kids in a closet or something. This happens to be the one day a year/decade/something where it stops raining and the sun comes out. Any idea what I'm talking about? This has been bugging me for years.



Tasha Robinson says "All right, already!":

Most of you are unique in the strange, half-forgotten things you want identified, but this (like the Ghostbusters question from a few weeks back) is one of the few questions we get over and over from different people in different forms, all clinging to the same few details: The girl, the rain, the closet. I actually got another e-mail asking this question again as I was compiling the column you're reading right now. So without further ado:

You're all thinking of the 1982 short-film adaptation of Ray Bradbury's 1959 short story "All Summer In A Day." The story takes place on Venus in an unspecified future time, in a classroom full of 9-year-olds, "the children of the rocket men and women who had come to a raining world to set up civilization and live out their lives." On Venus, it rains heavily and nonstop, except for a sunny break that comes around for a single hour, once every seven years. The children are, of course, too young to remember the last time it happened—except for Margot, a fragile girl whose parents immigrated from Earth, and who gets bullied by the other kids in large part because they're jealous of someone who's actually seen the sun.


As everyone who asks this question remembers, just before the hour without rain comes around, the other children grab Margot and bundle her into a closet, in a fit of childish resentment, though they're more teasing her than deliberately denying her the sun, which they only half-believe in anyway. Then when the sun actually comes out, they're so excited that they forget about her until the rain starts again. The short story ends with them guiltily remembering her, and trudging back inside to let her out. The film version has a longer coda, in which she emerges from the closet, and each of the children hands her the flowers they've picked, by way of apology. About the only person of any note involved with the film version was Edith Fields, who played the kids' teacher; look closely, and you can find her in a single episode of just about everything on TV, from Buffy The Vampire Slayer to Murphy Brown to Seinfeld to NYPD Blue to The Facts Of Life to Six Feet Under. Unfortunately, you aren't likely to find her in this; it's never been available on video or DVD. But you can find the story in Bradbury's anthology A Medicine For Melancholy.

And no, it doesn't have anything to do with Pink Floyd. More's the pity.


Time To Stop Making The Doughnuts

Okay, here's the loosest of threads to grasp at: I dimly remember a film or video of some sort that I saw at least once in elementary school, which means it must've fallen into the canon of Movies Safe For Teachers To Show To Elementary-School Classes While Said Teachers Hang Out And Smoke In The Teachers' Lounge. This group of films included "The Ransom Of Red Chief," The Apple Dumpling Gang, and for some goddamn reason, Where The Red Fern Grows, even though every fucking kid in class bawled his or her eyes out when the dog-death part comes around.


Digressions aside, the movie in question centered around a donut machine. I believe the film must've taken place in a small town, and what I remember of the plot involved everybody in town going completely apeshit over the donuts from this donut machine that some bakery or another had installed. Knowing what everyone should know about lame plot conventions, it would stand to reason that either the donut machine posed some kind of a threat to the business of a smaller, scrappier donut operation, or else that the bakery that bought the donut machine realized the true value of, I don't know, making their own fucking donuts by hand or some shit.

But that last part is speculation; what I remember about the film is a) donut machine, b) apeshit patrons, c) probably saw it in elementary school (1980-1985). Good luck. We're all counting on you.


Brian Byrne

Tasha Robinson is glad to be counted on:

Perhaps not surprisingly, Brian, your speculations about where the story goes are way off-base, but then, you're thinking about lessons kids might have been expected to get out of their folky fiction in the '80s, when you first saw this film, instead of in 1943, when the book it came from was written, or even 1963, when the film version you likely saw was made. You're thinking of "The Doughnuts," a short film adaptation of Robert McCloskey's story of the same name.


In the story—one of a series about Centerburg, Ohio whippersnapper Homer Price, collected in Homer Price and Centerburg Tales—Homer's Uncle Ulysses installs an automatic doughnut-maker in his coffee shop, but winds up with a couple of extra pieces, which he asks Homer to try and install. Homer does, with the result that the machine won't shut off. Due to the involvement of a weird rich lady with a diamond bracelet, the machine has 10 times the usual amount of batter in it, so it's guaranteed to keep spitting out unwanted doughnuts for hours. Then everybody realizes the lady's diamond bracelet is gone, and that it clearly wound up inside the machine, and is probably inside a doughnut.


So with the help of an advertising man, Homer whips up a sign offering two doughnuts for five cents while they last, plus a $100 reward for whoever gets the doughnut with the bracelet in it. Hence the townsfolk going apeshit—although some of the apeshittery is about the entire idea of this wacky newfangled modernized machine in sleepy little Centerburg. Eventually, the doughnuts are sold, the bracelet is found, and the day is saved. It's a quaint, homey little story of the kind Garrison Keillor might like, if it was delivered in a low enough monotone.

The film version was made in 1963 by Weston Woods Studios, which adapted a number of children's books into "distract the kids while the teachers smoke"-type films—not so much educational as harmless. (And featuring a bunch of actors who turn out to have absolutely no other credits.) That's probably the version you saw—I know it's the version foisted on me when I was in elementary school. There's a vague chance you might have seen the 1977 TV version, "Homer And The Wacky Doughnut Machine," which was an episode of ABC Weekend Specials, but it seems unlikely that your teacher was able to get her hands on a copy in those days, when VCRs were pricy, cutting-edge technology. If you want to be sure, the film version came out on VHS back in the early '90s as Homer Price Stories, and while it's out of print, copies are pretty easy to find.


Why do I know all this? Because, as I said, I was subjected to the same film, but I was also subjected to the story in class. It's fairly famous old-school kid-lit, and even now, if you look around online for "Homer Price" and "Robert McCloskey," you'll find a ton of classroom materials aimed at using the story to teach economics.

Book-Stumped No More!

Last week, we featured five letters from people asking us to identify books or stories they half-remembered; we invited you, the reading public, to take a shot at helping them, since we couldn't. And as usual, you proved that you're awesome:


Michael Dorfman asked about a book in which talented children are isolated from existing music so their compositions will be entirely original—except for the protagonist, who's "tainted" by forced exposure to Mozart. Many, many people wrote in to identify this as Orson Scott Card's story "Unaccompanied Sonata," available in his collection "Maps In A Mirror." A quick glance at the first page of the story through Amazon's "search inside" function makes it pretty clear that all the Card fans know what they're talking about. "Keith In Akron" added some more detail for Michael's benefit: "It has 4 or 5 parts, and he pretty accurately describes the first part, except that it was Bach, not Mozart, and he wasn't so much tricked as tempted. There follow other parts (each named after a piece of a classical work—get it??) where he is unable to keep himself from making music even though he is banned from it. He receives worse and worse punishments (he painlessly loses his fingers at one point). He eventually becomes one of those who police the society, because they can't think of what else to do with him, or that's the only way he'll learn. Or something. In the last section, 'Applause,' he hears some teenagers play one of his songs in a café, and somehow that just makes it all right."


Donald DiPaula asked about a children's picture book full of animals made up of common household objects. Several readers suggested he was thinking of Arnold Lobel's The Ice Cream Cone Coot And Other Rare Birds, which he eventually confirmed was the book he was looking for. Unfortunately, it's out of print. Very unfortunately, as once The A.V. Club found a cover image of this book, we remembered it from our childhoods too, and now we want our own copy.


"Joshua" remembered a book in which time-travelers wipe out a satellite system that Martians were using to preserve dinosaurs on Earth. A number of people explained that this is End Of An Era, a novel by Robert J. Sawyer… including Robert J. Sawyer himself. Thanks for the confirmation, Robert, and sorry if we gave away the ending.


Aryeh Cohen-Wade wanted us to ID a trilogy of books in which aliens are about to destroy a fantasy-novel version of Earth, and a hero stops them by burning giant geometric shapes that can be seen from space, though in the process, he ends the mythic era. In what may be a Stumped! first, only one person wrote in with the correct answer: "Melissa2" in our comments section pointed us to Tom McGowan's "Age Of Magic" trilogy, The Magical Fellowship, A Trial of Magic, and A Question Of Magic. Looks like these books are out of print too, though they're findable online pretty cheaply.


Finally, Dan Riddle asked about a book from the '80s in which "Armageddon comes and God is nowhere to be found." A few people suggested he was thinking of the last volume or two of Piers Anthony's "Incarnations Of Immortality" series, which are about God and Satan, and do feature a character having sex with a demon. Still, The A.V. Club is betting on the people pointing at James Blish's Black Easter and The Day After Judgment (available in a single volume as The Devil's Day). They seem a lot closer to the plot in question. You're the one with the fuzzy memory, Dan… do you recall whether your book ended with Satan nominating and electing a new version of God, or spouting off a Milton-esque soliloquy about how he was uniquely qualified to take over in God's absence?

Next week: What does "literacy" mean in a songwriter? Is that animated bee really who it sounds like? This and more of your questions, which you can send us at asktheavclub@theonion.com.


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