close
close

Latest Post

Woman realizes that her service dog is “manipulating” her Chipotle Stock Alert: Get Ready for the Launch as CMG Reports Earnings Today

We throw around the term “Renaissance man” as if he were a Nerf football at a Memorial Day picnic, but it’s hard to think of any other way to describe actor and comedian Martin Mull, who died Thursday at age 80.

On camera, which is what he’s best known for, Mull was instantly recognizable. His sarcastic and smug chuckle revealed that he knew his character’s superiority complex was ridiculous and, given the reality he was poking fun at, not exactly sweetly subversive. He could be lovable on screen – like when he and Fred Willard got married on “Roseanne” during the sitcom’s glorious 1990s run – but what I liked most was the biting way he played with and poked fun at entertainment culture’s norms.

In the 1970s and 1980s, when comedy was dominated by white men with a few exceptions (Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy), Mull made fun of the middle-class America of Wonder Bread like no other social critic, but you didn’t realize it until you realized you were laughing at your own neighborhood.

Check out that mustachioed wink as he tours a suburban home as the sweater-clad host of the mockumentary “The History of White People in America,” pretending to have found the Dead Sea Scrolls. Those coasters, he says, holding one up as a visual aid, are “there to protect all natural forests. Should they occur.”

Mull later stole scenes in “Veep” and “Arrested Development.” But for me, his best acting performance was as sleazy TV host Barth Gimble on “Fernwood 2 Night,” a satirical late-night talk show hosted by Norman Lear that aired in the summer of 1977. Appearing during the Johnny Carson era, Gimble served as a precursor to both Garry Shandling’s Larry Sanders and Zach Galifianakis’ “Two Ferns” persona. And again, he had Willard, who is also sadly no longer around, as his antagonist in crime.

I could write another appreciation about Mull’s painting, about his time at the Rhode Island School of Design, and how Mull developed a career over the years that saw his hyperrealistic works exhibited in galleries and museums and even featured on book and album covers.

But while we mourn Mull, I want to focus on his music. For in the 1970s, Mull managed to produce some of the finest wax-pressed song parodies. There’s no skimping here. He could play his Gibson archtop guitar well enough to trade a few riffs with Glen Campbell, although he wasn’t afraid to pick up the tuba – or sousaphone – when the performance called for it. During his musical career, Mull even opened for Bruce Springsteen, Frank Zappa and Billy Joel.

These records and performances served as a bridge between MIT professor-turned-parodist Tom Lehrer and the rise of “Weird Al” Yankovic in the MTV era.

Mull understands that to make fun of a form, you have to engage with that form. So on “Do the Nothing,” he gets the crowd clapping as he seemingly launches into a song that promises to be catchy and references a popular new dance move, except that the dance, as the title suggests, is absolutely nothing. He even stops playing at the chorus to prove his point, and yet the clapping continues awkwardly, because a crowd told to clap by a star performer will do so whether or not anything clapable happens. Mull begins praising individual band members, even though we hear them not play a single note.

In another song, “Jesus Christ Football Star,” he gets into a gospel mood when Satan takes an onside kick and Matthew, “thinking fast,” recovers and gets the ball ready for the Christians for the first and tenth time: “Let’s give Jesus Christ the football/ let him tie the score/ let him shoot it through the crossbar/ and never be on the cross anymore.”

Whenever I get the chance to play a Mull song for an unsuspecting friend or family member, it’s always “Ukulele Blues,” recorded in 1973. Here, he succeeds in perfectly satirizing the tradition of white cultural appropriation at a time when countless black blues artists were watching Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, and even Ram Jam make money off original songs. It makes “Ukulele Blues” sound almost dutiful, like a kind of know-it-all lecture. It’s anything but that.

The blues, Mull reminds us in a long introduction, is about going back to your roots. In this case, he says, without breaking character, he thinks of his grandfather, who was a “very, very successful” real estate agent and lived in the heart of the Delta. Cleveland’s Lake Erie Delta.

“Many of you may think you have to be poor to play the blues,” he says with a disparaging chuckle. “Don’t make me laugh.”

Then Mull, who often appeared in a yellow tuxedo and bow tie, begins to pluck the open-tuned ukulele in his lap. Mississippi Fred McDowell sawed off the neck of a Gordon’s gin bottle for his slide. Mull? He uses a baby bottle – and still creates a credible accompaniment to his story about suburban misery.

I woke up this afternoon, HOOOOO/ I saw that both cars were gone

I woke up this afternoon, Mr. Mom/ I saw that both cars were gone

I felt so depressed deep inside/ I threw my drink across the lawn

Mull stopped recording his music in the late ’70s, but he didn’t give up the tools that made those records so special: knowledge, technical skill and dedication to the role. These helped him on screen as he continued to break cultural norms – a true original that can never be replaced.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *