Friday, August 25, 2017

The Jarlsberg Diaries: Chuck E Cheese and Me

It's one of those moments that shocks everyone to the core. An event from which all history will be measured "before" or "after." And for years to come, people will ask one another: "Where were you when you heard that the robots were fired from Chuck E. Cheese Pizza?"

For me, that moment came about an hour ago, when I saw this clip from the Conan O'Brien show:

So why should I care so deeply, apart from the fact that there are fewer and fewer entertainers with cheese-based names in America? I care because for many, many years I was the guy writing and recording the scripts for those robotic vaudevillians!

It was, for the most part, a great gig. For one thing, Showbiz Pizza (who owned the franchise) needed about four shows a year (predictable income is a freelance writer's favorite kind), we were able to make the shows broad and funny, the voice performers were talented and fun to work with, and my co-producers (propping up the music side while I handled dialogue, sound effects, corny jokes, and occasional songwriting chores) were consummate professionals.

Of course, no job is ever perfect. Despite the fact that I always made sure the shows were 100% family friendly, I once had a boss (who was always a tremendous pain in the rear) call and chew me out for trying to sneak dirty material into the program. Specifically, the robots were performing a Huey Lewis song with a breakout horn section, and I had Chuck E. call attention to it by saying "Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Hornets!" - at which point we cut to video of three bees playing trumpets. "Horns" "bees" "hornets" - get it?! Well this guy didn't, and he had a breakdown because he claimed I'd deliberately worked the word "whore" into the show and he was the only one who caught it.  And you wonder why I drink...

More fun was the experimental project to add Jellystone Park superstars Yogi Bear and BooBoo to the robotic lineup in a number of stores. This not only gave me a chance to write for the characters, but also the opportunity to fly to L.A. to supervise and direct the recording of the legendary Daws Butler (Yogi) and Don Messick (BooBoo) - who, incidentally, couldn't stand each other and needed to be recorded separately.

My favorite part of that particular show was having Yogi Bear sing my special version of "Hungry" by Paul Revere and the Raiders: "I'm hungry for the good life, BooBoo - hungry through and through. Hungry for those sweet things, BooBoo- and a pic-a-nic basket too!"

Sadly, the Yogi Bear experiment never caught on - but I do still have that song on a cassette around here somewhere. For some reason, it features a very butch-sounding group of male backup singers (perhaps The Village People), making the recording a bizarre campy classic.

(A side note: decades ago, what may have been the first licensing deal to use Yogi Bear and other Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters on merchandise was struck by my entrepreneurial father. The results were pretty funny and will deserve their own "Jarlsberg Diaries" entry in the future.) 

After all these years, I'm not surprised to hear that the robots are being retired. They were never exactly state of the art technology and, in my opinion anyway, were pretty darn dangerous. Not because they were sent back from the future, Terminator-style, to kill Sarah Connor. They were dangerous because people are idiots, and were forever helping their tiny tots climb up on the stage with the adorable hydraulic machinery. Robots who, despite their fuzzy exteriors, could crush a kid with as little remorse as was shown by the wood chipper that atomized Steve Buscemi in "Fargo."

As a final farewell to my robotic friends, here's a special rarity for you: the Chuck E Cheese "Classical Music" show, with lyrics by yours truly. This particular show helped me land another, bigger job in the entertainment industry. But that, too, remains a tale for another day...


"Help me! Help meeeeeeeeeeeeeee!"
Remember the original movie "The Fly," in which teeny-tiny scientist David Hedison (now just a head and arm attached to a housefly) is stuck in a spiderweb as the gigantic, venom-dripping, eight-legged owner is approaching, and the kindest thing bystanders can do is smoosh him with a big rock? Just asking.

Put another way, we're entering the "What the HELL were we thinking?!" stage of the remodeling process. In lieu of flowers, please send scotch.


Rod said...

Is one of your demolition guys named "Harvey" ? I'm up checking the Hurricane Center because of a planned trip down there next week. I hope you're sufficiently North to be OK. It looks like Harvey will have significant impact.

Judi King said...

I think I went to a Chuck E Cheese once but it has been relegated to the lost memory part of my brain.

Unknown said...

I enjoyed your Chuck E Cheese story. I attended the pre-opening of the first Showbiz Pizza Place in Milwaukee in around 1981. My favorite Rock-A-Fire Explosion tune was "Heartaches." I'm the proud owner of the 45 RPM single. Sorry to see the band break up.

Geoff King said...

Ahhh! This story explains your "Nom de Fromage".

Stilton Jarlsberg said...

@Rod- We live north of Dallas and shouldn't really get anything more than a couple of rainy days. I'm afraid that a lot of my fellow Texans aren't going to fare as well.

@Judi King- Well, if you don't remember hilarity and snappy patter from the robots, you must have attended for a show I didn't write (grin).

@Steve Nichols- Actually, I'm not sure if the "band" is breaking up, or it's just the robots that are being shown the door. I'd imagine they'll still be in the store in videos and walkaround costumes (by the way, kids just LOVE to punch the poor sap wearing the Chuck E costume in the nuts).

@Geoff King- Surprisingly, my association with Chuck E Cheese simply suggested what fate had in store for me. The "nom de fromage" came about with the publication of my book "Who Cut The Cheese?" - a parody of the business bestseller "Who Moved My Cheese?" And now that I think about it, there are some amusing anecdotes related to that experience that I should share sometime.

Unknown said...

Wow, that quite the tale. I have never been in a Chuck E Cheese - I've driven past some though. The closest I've been was when I worked 911 in a major metro area- there were fights breaking out in those things all the time 'Baby Mama Drama' was the usual instigators..

I learned to avoid them..

Rod said...

I don't remember the name of the game, but my clearest memory of Chuck E. Cheese was certainly not the pizza. It involved tossing a hopper full of small beach balls into the tubes for score in a limited period of time. OUR little darlings figured out that by everyone standing at the line and just double-handed scooping as fast as they good (Yes, I helped) they could run out a long string of free tickets. It soon became embarrassing and we stopped doing that maybe just before we were tossed out. Sorry but I was a little old to be thrilled by the band. If you had included the dirty jokes on the playlist that could have been different.

Bobo said...

I visited Chuck E.'s 17 or 18 years ago for a birthday party (not mine). Remember having a good time. Those weren't real live characters in the band? Oh, my.

Bruce Bleu said...

My wife and I have been married for nearly 49 years, survived remodeling 9 houses and building one, (7 bdrm 5 bath), and, statistically, if you can survive this process you are in a healthy relationship.

Stilton Jarlsberg said...

@Tracy Evans- I was tempted to mention (but didn't) that the only time I've heard about Chuck E Cheese in recent years is when riots break out among the patrons. Frequently, but not always, of a certain demographic. I don't know what the hell is wrong with some people, but on Youtube you can find them breaking chairs over each other's heads while the robots just keep singing. Perhaps an allegory for our future?

@Bobo- The robots no doubt FELT real because of their snappy banter (grin).

@Bruce Bleu- This process is going to be no threat to our relationship, but we are going to look like zombie apocalypse survivors when (and if) we get to the other side.

CenTexTim said...

I guess I'm way behind the times, because I was shocked at the language in the Conan O'Brien clip. Not at the language itself, but at the fact that it was aired on national TV. Really? (I know, cable and all that, but still...).

One suggestion for the remodeling - beg, borrow, or steal an RV and park it in the driveway as needed. You can stock it with scotch as you drive it home.

Bob Singer said...

Glad to find out you were behind the Chuck E Cheese Robotic (or were they considered animatronic) show. Back in San Jose, California where I grew up we used to go to a MASSIVE Chuck E. Cheese, which Wikipedia says was the original Bushnell place. Tubes for kids to climb through, games, arcade, foosball, and air hockey, as well as the show and the pizza, made it a great time for my kids when they were growing up. The place has these two story windows where huge statues of the characters stood. It is STILL a Chuck E. Cheese today (see the map link below). Great memories. You helped make them.,-121.8301501,3a,75y,80.07h,87.52t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sHMqMdwXkrbsacRdwDIj0yA!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

John the Econ said...

Well, who knew that? A man of so many talents touches the lives of so many in so many ways.

I don't think that most people appreciate the amount of artistic talent that goes into seemingly mundane industrial products. People (including many who go into "the arts") think that being an "artist" means painting the next Mono Lisa or being the next Taylor Swift. But the reality is that most of the paying jobs in "the arts" are industrial. I know many of them, and they are incredibly talented people. You'll never see these people or know their names, but they're the ones adding texture and flair to our everyday experience.

Anyone who has had children, knows children, or is related to someone who has had children has probably been exposed to Chuck E. Cheese. I remember the first time (and mercifully one of the few times) we were dragged to one. My first impression was that it was a casino for kids; practically every amusement I saw had a casino analog and they all made similar sounds. (I would not be surprised to find that it's owners are also connected with Vegas) And the food was awful. The pizza was literally comparable to lightly-sauced cardboard. Felt like I needed a good shower afterwards.

But it's nice to know that at least some of that money made it to @Stilton's pocket. Good work.

@CenTexTim: Unfortunately, "late night cable" has become synonymous with poor language. Of of the signs that a comedy show is struggling is the dip into crudity. Conan, who has been known as a writer of wittier humor knows better. But my guess is that the memo came from above to grab a lower-brow audience.

Colby Muenster said...

You are "The Wrecking Crew" of the kid's pizza place world! I am honored.

For anyone interested, a grown-up version of Chuck E. Cheese is Organ Stop Pizza in Mesa, AZ. Same business model, but the entertainment is a person playing what has to be the world's largest Wurlitzer theater organ. I know this sounds sort of cheesy (pardon the pun), but it's really pretty darn cool.

@Steve Nichols,
Is that a Corvair?! Don't you know those are unsafe at any speed? Just kidding... one of the coolest cars ever, and Ralph Nader sucks.

CenTexTim said...

@John the Econ - a sad state of affairs, but just another indication of the coarsening of society. I watched late night TV fairly regularly when Johnny Carson was on (dating myself...). Started tapering off during the Leno years, and gave up on it completely when O'Brien, Fallon et al. took over. Of course, that may have something to do with the fact that as I get older it's harder and harder to stay awake past the news.

Stilton Jarlsberg said...

@CenTexTim- I was really surprised by the language in the Conan piece, too. I've written comedy (in one form or another) my entire life, and there's nothing cheaper than using shocking language as a substitute for wit. And just in general, I'm not happy about the coarsening of language in popular culture (mind you, here at home I'm a complete potty mouth - but no one knows except Mrs. J and the Amazon "Alexa").

@Bob Singer- I enjoyed hearing your memories. And indeed, the 'bots were considered animatronics. And for the record, they look terrifying without their skins.

@John the Econ- You've hit a real hot button of mine. I have enormous respect for actual working artists (and yes, I consider myself one), as opposed to those poseurs who simply want to affect an "artistic" lifestyle - which they take to mean unjustified privilege and a rotten work ethic. Both of my parents were commercial artists AND fine artists. And I'm completely baffled by people who sneer at "commercial" artists. Consider the works of NC Wyeth, Norman Rockwell, and Maxfield Parrish. And writers like Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle who were basically paid by the word to create popular literature.

In marked contrast, I really don't like much modern or abstract art, particularly when it's being purchased at preposterous prices by the government (I'm recalling a "yarn ball installation" for a foreign embassy that cost taxpayers several hundred thousand dollars).

Regarding CEC, it wasn't just "where a kid can be a kid," it was "where a kid can be overstimulated to the point of mania" with all the buzzers, bells, flashing lights, and arcade games. And the pizza was godawful, always. Which is remarkable when you consider how hard it is to screw up pizza.

@Colby Muenster- Speaking of "The Wrecking Crew," one of my great pleasures in life has involved working with studio musicians who come in for a gig, glance at the music, and then perform BEAUTIFULLY. Instrumentalists and vocalists alike with remarkable talents who are paying the bills rather than simply awaiting stardom (although it does come to some of them).

And I'd actually really enjoy that place with the Wurlitzer theater organ. Do they occasionally show silent movies? Now THAT'S entertainment.

pgm1972 said...

Wow! Yet another facet of "The man that is Stilton" is revealed.

And from the category "Did they have you in mind when they added this line?"

And I mean that as a most sincere compliment. :-)

Joseph ET said...

@ Bob Singer I frequented that same Chuck E. Cheese off of Tully Rd back in my San Jose days. 1978 - 1984 Just for the kids of course. LOL

@ Stilton Sure appears you’ve had an interesting and productive path. We are looking forward to additional episodes.

John the Econ said...

@CenTexTim, completely. Yes, I too remember Johnny Carson warmly. Good natured and nothing "psychically polluting" like so much of television is today. I also enjoyed Letterman when he was still fresh in the '80s. Leno was a class act too. But by the '90s, I had better things to do with my time than late night TV and tuned out. Or maybe it was that late night TV tuned out on me. Either way, I believe that constantly exposing one's self to this sort of cultural diarrhea over time has a lasting effect on people that they don't even realize. You can't go swimming in a sewer and emerge smelling good, even though you've gotten used to the smell.

Artists: @Stilton, as you know there's a big difference between being an "artist" and being a "professional artist". I have tremendous respect for those who can make a living at it. The ones I know get up in the morning and go to work for 8 hours or more just like the rest of us do. And they're not shaggy drugged-out hipsters with pony tails or man-buns either. Oh, and contrary to the popular image, they aren't exclusively brain-dead Progressives either.

Reminds me of Nancy Pelosi's insipid comment about artists and health insurance. It just reinforces the notion that real art is not commercial. That's why we have so much crap, both paid for and not.

Anonymous said...

That was. A great skit on Conan with CC and the

Sam L. said...

Loved the banjo break! You done real good with the lyrics, too.