Great Sketches #15: “Apple Raisin Walnut Cookies” by Sesame Street

Years ago, NPR had a series called In Character, in which the august network examined various fictional American creations who have shaped the great fabric blah blah blah they interviewed Cookie Monster go watch it. And it’s worth hunting down the episode in full, because it encapsulates a lot of the great points of one of the most enduring of all Muppet creations: to paraphrase, Cookie Monster is single-minded and obsessive but also inherently kind and even a bit ashamed of his outbursts. It’s what separates him from Animal, who really couldn’t give a shit about the carnage he creates, even when he says “Soh-reeeeeeee”.

A lot of Sesame Street’s legacy centers around its educational content and focus on helping children understand complex concepts like death, dviorce, racism, and, more recently, homelessness and autism. Yet, it’s also always been focused on entertainment, and many of its vignettes are essentially comedy sketches for kids (and not always kids, as the recent resurgence of topical parodies has proven). It’s fascinating to go back to the sometimes literally woolly days of the show’s early years and see the focus on character-based interactions, the classic stuff of comedy. Broad personalities can lend themselves to lots of jokes, as we’ll see in one of many classic bits involving the big blue beast of the bakery himself.

Part of Cookie Monster’s appeal is in his simplicity: he has very few distinguishing features aside from his trademark blue fur and googly eyes. He speaks in caveman English and he likes cookies, and pretty much any interaction with him is a futile exercise in trying to keep him to sit still long enough to not devour everything in sight (while he prefers cookies, he’s not picky). Cookie Monster is flexible enough that he’s done pretty much everything over the years from auditioning for SNL to moonlighting under his stage name “Tom Waits” to breaking the Internet with PIKOTARO.

But today’s bit is an old-school look at Cookie, in a classic bit of back and forth that doesn’t really teach you anything aside from possibly the insidious nature of food addiction. We start with Cookie Monster, looking adorable in a chef’s apron and hat, getting ready to bake apple walnut raisin cookies having assembled the “in-gree-dee-ents”. Onhand to act as the straight man is, surprisingly, Ernie. Ernie is an interesting choice since he’s usually the Cookie Monster-esque slob in his own double act with Bert, but Bert would have a total meltdown dealing with Cookie (and plus, even Frank Oz would have trouble performing those two characters at the same time, at least back in the day).

So instead Ernie gently offers to help C.M. with his project, and things quickly start to go downhill. Sophisticated sugar addicts like myself can play the long game, refraining from gorging on little morsels until the final dessert is done. Cookie Monster, of course, knows no such restraint: one sniff of the apples and he devours them immediately (moments after Ernie asks “you gonna peel those or something?”). Because this is OG husky-voiced Frank Oz Cookie Monster, “eating” the apples means shoving them into his mouth and covering them while they disappear offscreen, thanks to a little help from the camera.

Cookie Monster is normally not too ashamed of his ravenousness, but he apologizes immediately and insists that just walnut raisin cookies will be fine (“They not bad either!”). We all know where this is going, and yet there’s still something hilariously brazen abut seeing him upend an entire bowl of walnuts into his mouth and NOM NOM NOM them until they roll to the floor, very obviously uncrushed.  You begin to feel a little bad for the guy. The raisins don’t stand a chance: he doesn’t even finish his sentence before they’re gone as well.

The punchline comes after Ernie points out that they can’t make the cookies anymore, and Cookie replies that he “save meself a whole bunch of work” before slicking down the side of his face in a motion that’s really weird for a creature without a visible tongue to do.

Once again, Ernie’s version of being a foil feels less judgy than some of the other options, like the frustrated librarian in this equally classic bit. When Ernie asks Cookie Monster what they’re going to do now that the ingredients are gone, it comes from a place of concern for the two of them, not disgust at his furry blue friend. The whole thing would be a painfully close to depicting food addiction were it not for the vaudevillian ending (speaking for myself, there have indeed abandoned more complicated recipes in favor of simply eating the individual parts instead). Considering the amount of work it surely takes to operate the Muppets, it’s also impressive how loose and improvisational these early bits feel, as if all the residents of Sesame Street were taking Second City classes in their free time.

Sesame Street and The Muppet Show drew a lot of their charm from using traditional routines, even though the latter relied a lot more on then cutting-edge animation and fast-paced editing. While the very basic structure of this bit doesn’t really require any knowledge of the two characters, it’s all about their personalities and tells us so much about both of them, all while telling a simple, funny joke. At the end, Cookie Monster might have ruined his original plan but it’s all the same to him. He’s too easily pleased to be disappointed for long., and there’s some truth to what he says at the end. Why torture yourself to actually make something when you can get the same result faster by going the obvious route?

There are plenty of things wrong with that philosophy in the real world, but not for Cookie. He will always survive to his next meal, and even though he’s never satisfied, he ends this sketch content about what he did.  So here’s to Cookie Monster: he may be an unstoppable force of chaos, but he also has pretty good body image. And it’s hard to get mad at anyone with big puppet eyes. Unless they’re being an outright dick to you, I suppose…


Every Episode from Doctor Who Series 11, Ranked from Worst to Best

*LOTS of spoilers follow, don’t even think about reading this if you’re at all worried about them*

The latest season (or “series”) of Doctor Who has been defined by two high profile changes: in front of the cameras, the Doctor regenerated into a thirteenth (canonical) form, played by Jodie Whittaker, the first woman to ever officially take on the role in a non-expanded universe or spoof production. Behind the scenes, Steven Moffat regenerated into Chris Chibnall, creator of Broadchurch and a semi-regular contributor to both Who and Torchwood. If you were someone who, like me, was deeply sick of Moffat and overjoyed to see the first female Doctor take the spotlight, then the months between Peter Capaldi’s farewell special and the Series 11 premiere must have felt long indeed.

Both of these changes were much heralded in the press and marketing, yet you could argue that, if anything, the BBC actually undersold the shift in its latest batch of episodes. The show that returned to screens in October was filled with newness, including new companions (Mandip Gill as Yaz, Tosin Cole as Ryan, and Bradley Walsh as Graham), more of which traveled regularly with the Doctor than ever before, and a new score courtesy of Segun Akinola, who I instantly liked 1,000 times more than Murray Gold (sorry, Murray). And it has also been a season defined by its lack of things as well: no Daleks, no Cybermen, no returning characters of any kind from previous series, no season-spanning mystery word, nary a mention of Gallifrey (unless I’m mistaken, the Doctor never even calls herself a Time Lord, though thankfully they appear to have dropped the outdated, arguably sexist 70’s term “Time Lady”).  This wasn’t just the biggest revamp since the 2005 revival. It might vary well be the most radical reimagining since Jon Pertwee’s first season in 1970 (which, if you go back and watch it, shares some weird similarities with the most recent season).

Before we get to the ranking, I’d be remiss if I didn’t take time to praise Whittaker’s performance. It’s exactly what the show needed, a revitalized take on the character that makes thematic sense. She may still have the intellect and quirk that always defines the Doctor, but she’s also a bit of a cosmic holy fool, as suggested by her instantly iconic outfit, which is more than a little reminiscent of Mork from Ork or the goofy hippie/clown Jesus from Godspell. This Doctor is relishing the chance to reinvent herself and reaches for new experiences like a curious child. I appreciated Peter Capaldi’s “wandering aged rock star” vibe (despite the material he was saddled with), but to me this new take has been a consistent joy to watch.

I’ll go ahead and bait the trolls even more by saying I personally enjoyed this season as a whole more than any of Peter Capaldi’s individual seasons (yes, even Series 10). Moffat’s tendency for overcomplicated zaniness and big setpieces is gone, replaced by a steadier, more meat-and-potatoes approach to storytelling. There’s less frenetic action, less levity, more of a sense that the show is taking itself seriously.

The eleventh season as a whole had plenty of problems, to be sure, not the least of which were some rushed moments of exposition and a tendency towards anticlimax. But it also undid a lot of the issues with the Moffat era and took several steps in the right direction. And no matter what the eldritch manbabies of YouTube tell you, the show has not paid some sort of price in ratings or cultural standing for being socially conscious: on the contrary, it’s more relevant and popular than it’s been in years.

Enough blabbering (or as the Brits say “faffing about”). Here is my ranking of Jodie’s first ten outings as The Doctor. May there be many more to come.

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Every Story from “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”, Ranked

If you visited a Dad or dad-like person in your life over Thanksgiving, you probably watched The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. I certainly did. And for the most part, I liked it. Anthology films and shows usually seem to do it for me, and there was something inherently fun about the movie’s concept: six darkly comic (or sometimes just dark) Western tales from the Coen Brothers, all springing to life from the pages of an illustrated storybook, spanning every subgenre from musical to survivalist fiction to ghost story.

Of course the results were hit and miss. That’s the nature of these things: I doubt there’s a single anthology film out there that’s all hits (there are certainly many that are all misses). The mixed bag nature of an anthology is the whole point. In fact, I would argue that Buster Scruggs is actually less scattershot than some of the Coens’ other films, particularly Hail Caesar!, the most recent of theirs I saw in theaters and a mixed bag if ever there was one.

Although I’m not the only one to rank all of these segments, for some reason I just couldn’t get the idea of doing so out of my head. So, unless I grievously misremember, here’s the way each of these stories stacks up. And also there are spoilers in these here parts, so don’t say you ain’t been warned. Or something. *spits*

6) “The Gal Who Got Rattled”

For all the things it does well, Buster Scruggs is lousy at representation. There are precious few significant parts for women, and more than half of the stories have zero important speaking roles for women at all. That’s a shame, even moreso because the one story with a female protagonist is also the worst.

Zoe Kazan is certainly good as Alice Longabaugh, a kind of Oregon Trail version of Daenerys Targaryen, except instead of dragons she has a dog named after the president and instead of everything else that makes Daenerys interesting she just has the dead brother. And her brother isn’t even covered in gold!

Despite the beautiful cinematography and sweeping prairie scenery, the story slogs along, with too many courtly wagon train scenes between Alice and her suitor, Billy Knapp (Bill Heck). A lot of their conversations have to do with financial matters involving a barely seen wagon boy. Because that’s why you decided to watch this movie, right? To watch the Western version of the senate scenes from the Star Wars prequels?

And while Alice’s tragic self-inflected death can be seen as a commentary on the fearmongering of white cowboys like Mr. Arthur (Grainger Hines), nothing about the way natives are presented in this movie does anything to challenge ugly racist “Hollywood Indian” tropes, this segment especially (sadly, we are still watching movies where characters we are supposed to care about call native Americans savages without rebuke in 2018, and yes, I know it’s meant to be “of the times”. Not an excuse.). IMHO, it would have been better if Mr. Arthur had turned out to be completely wrong and the “war party” had actually been peaceful all along (it’s depressing how many people see him as a “heroic badass” in this scenario). This was the biggest disappointment of the film and the actors involved deserved better.

5) “Near Algodones”

It’s got a neat ending, some clever dialogue and a few memorable setpieces, but compared to the other segments this is a surprisingly forgettable outlaw story about why you can’t beat death forever, as a bank robber (James Franco) suffers a bizarre streak of bad luck that does not end well for him. The trailer gives the best line away, and in a weird way, although it’s not as disappointing as #6 on this list it’s more eminently skippable. Also, James Franco has a history of predatory behavior and should not still be making movies.

4) “Meal Ticket”

This one has a solid premise but peters out towards the end. Maybe it’s just me. I feel like we don’t really get enough information about “Professor Harrison” (Harry Melling), a young man with no arms or legs who recites famous speeches as a sideshow act, to really understand his relationship with his “impresario” (Liam Neeson).

Yes, Melling is a marvelously expressive actor, and Neeson disappears into his part, but we need more to really care about what happens here. Melling’s character never speaks offstage and while we get the sense that he knows his partner will betray him, he ultimately feels like a passive character waiting to die, which leaves us counting time until the inevitable happens. Too bad, since there’s a significant amount of tension built up before then. That must be one hell of a chicken, though.

3) “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”

Probably the most crowd-pleasing of all the segments, not in the least because it’s an overtly comedic, blood-soaked cowboy musical featuring Tim Blake Nelson as the titular Buster Scruggs, a sort of cross between Gene Autry and The Punisher. Nelson’s character, a chipper warbling gunslinger with a nasty violent streak, claims he’s not a misanthrope but seems awfully eager to almost literally dance on the grave of a guy he just killed.

That guy, by the way, is Çurly Joe (Clancy Fucking Brown), pronounced “Surly Joe”, as the above number will inform you. I love the way Scruggs engineers his own crowd by throwing peoples’ hats in the air for them while gloating about Joe’s death (“He was mean in days of yore/Now they’re moppin’ up the floor”). This scene is, I don’t mind disclosing, my Dad’s favorite part, and he’s still sending us emails about it today.

Nelson often plays exaggerated goofballs but here there’s something sinister playing around his eyes. I almost wish the Coens had gone with the more obvious version of this joke and made Scruggs overtly malicious: he does only kill in self defense, after all, and the final song takes a weird turn as if the entire story had really been about how “you can’t be on top forever”. Still, there’s a lot of great gags and lines here, and the songs will be stuck in your head for days. Willie Watson also has a handsome cameo as the dapper newcomer and leads a memorable duet. If you love O Brother, Where Art Thou? and don’t mind a bit of over-the-top gore, this will suit you just fine.

2) “All Gold Canyon”

Would you watch a full feature film about Tom Waits panning for gold in the wilderness while ranting at nobody? I would! Until that film gets made, we have this richly evocative fable, in which Waits, looking more than a little like famous G.I. Gus Chiggins, seeks out a seam of gold he’s dubbed “Mister Pocket” in a beautiful green valley. No matter how accurate the portrayal of prospecting is here, you’ll have a new appreciation for the amount of work it takes to trace gold from flakes to nuggets to the source.

The photography here is top-notch, and the conceit of Waits talking out loud to himself avoids being cheesy because, as my brother put it, this is probably what Waits is like on an average weekend anyway. His reaction to surviving a bullet to the back is priceless. It’s also the one story in this collection to have the closest thing to a happy ending, depending on how sarcastic you think the Coens are being here. It’s a highlight either way, for sure.

1) “The Mortal Remains”

There’s something about bottle episodes that seems to up creators’ games, across the board, whatever the medium. Strip down the narrative, cram a bunch of characters into a locked room and watch the scenario play itself out. In this case, the room is inside of a coach, and the characters are: René, a cynical Frenchman (Saul Rubinek), Mrs. Betjeman (Tyne Daly) a supercilious zealot, the Trapper (Chelcie Ross), who turns out to be surprisingly chatty, and a pair of suspicious gentlemen in natty suits (Jonjo O’Neill and Brendan Gleeson) who might be conmen, or murderers, or something even worse…

What’s genius about this bit is the way it seems to be plot-based but ultimately is all about character and mood. The quasi-supernatural elements creep in as slowly as the sinking sun, so that when O’Neill delivers his gorgeously theatrical monologue about the power of storytelling (which shows up in the trailer and might as well be the thesis of this whole movie) it feels like we’ve already entered the underworld. The Gothic performances and ghostly blue lighting of the moments of the film’s last few scenes are almost like something out of Guy Maddin if he ever did a Western horror story (and why can’t he, already?).

As others have surely noted, the most prominent theme throughout these stories is the presence of death in the West. This is the only story where we, perhaps, come face to face with capital “D” Death, depending on what O’Neill and Gleeson’s roles as “reapers” really entails. The Coens probably could have gone straight up horror movie on us but they wisely keep things ominous and ambiguous, allowing the creepy ending images to tease us and let that be that. This segment may not be as rousing as what’s come before but it’s an achievement all the same and helps to close the anthology out on a suitably spooky note.