Monthly Archives: November 2008

Secrets of the Fruitcake Lady… REVEALED!

What’s wrong with this picture?

That last posting below reminded me of another shrill, white-haired old lady who used to shout at me all the time. I am referring, of course, to Marie Rudisill, better known as The Fruitcake Lady from the Tonight Show segments of the same name.

For about four years we shot and aired nearly thirty segments of The Fruitcake Lady. Though we started off with so-so ratings, after a few airings it picked up and she became one of the most popular “correspondents” on Leno. I still get a lot of questions about Marie, so I’ll repeat the most common ones and give you the (sometime surprising) answers.

Q: How did you find her?

A: Marie is Truman Capote’s aunt, and helped raise him when he was a little boy and his mother was institutionalized. He lived with her in Manhattan, when she was married to her first husband, a Japanese architect whom Truman disliked (possibly the inspiration for Mickey Rooney’s buck-toothed Mr. Yunioshi stereotype in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”). Marie claimed she inspired “Aunt Teeny” from Truman’s famous Christmas Story, and she was given the publishing rights to that work after his death. That character, you recall, made a fruitcake.

Marie wrote a book containing Fruitcake recipes, reminiscences of Truman, and that very story. Jay’s wife Mavis is a big Capote fan, and after she read the book she recommended Marie for a cooking segment on the show.

The cooking segment was a hit. In it, she ordered Jay and Mel Gibson around (he did not call her “sugar tits”) and we approached her to do advice segments. After shooting with Kevin Smith in Orlando and Tampa, we dropped him at the airport and drove to her house, somewhere in a drained swamp on the Gulf Coast, showed her some questions I shot with audience members, and basically grilled her under hot lights for 3 hours. She was 89.

Q: What was she like?

A: There is something about old women from the deep south that seems elegant. The black suit, pearls and measured way of speaking belied a redneck to the core.

Outside her double-wide, a confederate flag flew 24/7. Whenever it rained, her yard would flood and snakes would come into her house. Sometimes the rain was heavy enough to sink many of the broken cars deep into the backyard. There was something living in the old washing machine back there, too.

On our second visit, her pit bull crashed through a closed window and attacked our sound guy. After that, we moved the whole shooting match to the Airport Hyatt in Tampa, and requested the same room each time thereafter to make the lamp and the crock pot in the background match.

But of course, she was very funny. Impatient, mean, and (I hate to speak ill of the dead, but) not the classiest lady to ever swear on TV, but funny.

Q: Were those questions real?

A: Yes and no. We would give the audience members (waiting outside for the show to start) cards and pencils and told them to ask for advice. Then, we would type them up and send them to Marie, and she would have a chance to look them over. A producer would run down the questions over the phone, and since she was too frail to fly, we would go to see her before we flew down to see her

After she shook us down for a new VCR or air conditioner or something, she would get into a limo and meet us in Tampa for the taping. Her limo driver, also 4 feet tall but nearly 300 pounds of crew-cut ambiguity, would carry her to the car like a baby.

We would start with those questions, then go off-topic to try to get a rise out of her. That’s where most of the good stuff came from. As she looked off-camera on TV, she was looking straight at me, so when she called a participant and idiot or an asshole, it was me she was really going after.

I would edit the clips and pick the best ones, then reverse engineer the questions. The day before show time, I would shoot the questions with new audience members in front of the studio on Alameda.

Q: What was it like working with a 93-year-old lady?

A: Not easy. She used to refer to me as the “Cut Man,” because I would cut out all of her favorite answers. However, I’m pretty sure I was doing her a favor, since nobody really wants to hear stories about her pit bull killing baby gators, and if they did, it would destroy the illusion of elegance I was going for.

You see, it doesn’t really matter what it’s like working with her. The whole trick here is THAT she was so old. A 35-year-old man yelling at you, calling you an asshole and an idiot, well that’s just angry. But a 94-year-old woman? She’s spunky! Outspoken!

Children and old people can get away with murder on TV. It’s just a basic rule of entertainment. Kids say the darndest things, and Marie said the goddamnededest things, and it was just funny. I mean, who else could tell a girl to “wash miss puss inside and out” to have a good wedding night? What middle-aged adult could tell a young man to shove a bunch of cookies “straight up your ass?”

I hope that, in shooting and airing these pieces, we have not taken our society down another notch. After all, one thinks of one’s golden years as having a little more class than that. On the other hand, it’s pretty damned funny watching a little old lady bark obscenities, so I guess the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

And as for that picture above? Marie was nearly blind, so we had to wear bright clothing so she could make us out behind the camera. After her banana and an sip of Ensure, she she would often answer the questions with her eyes closed. So I would take the video into After Effects and paste open eyes on her face.

The results were hilarious.

Click here to see a sample Fruitcake Lady segment.

Effects, yes. Special? Well…

Phony product shot from a recent sketch

Here’s a brief look at how I put together a commercial parody last week on the show.

The idea was for the “Mom Mom,” a GPS Navigator that’s just like the Tom Tom, but instead of just saying the directions, it says them like your mom used to. That is, the device nags you as you drive.

I thought it would be more fun if Jay was the driver being nagged, and on the day we went out to shoot it (it was about 15 minutes of Jay driving in the neighborhood around the studio), he wanted to make the device more than just a voice, but also to show a little white-haired old lady on the screen.

We shot Jay’s lines, then set up a shoot later in the afternoon of an old lady against a green screen background, so I could put her image over some electronic maps and at least make it seem like she belonged in the device.

I built some 3D models on the computer in a low-cost software called Hash Animation Master, and animated them to make the bit look more like a commercial. First, a computer-generated Tom Tom, and then the modified product with different touches that make it seem more homey.

Computer-generated GPS units in various stages of completion

Next, I made a 3-second animation in Hi Def of each of the models making one full revolution. That way, I could loop the video, spinning them as many times as I want and flying them around the screen in the compositing software, After Effects. That’s where I added the background and titles, mimicking the same type style and look of the Tom Tom Commercial.

Since we had no budget for the shoot, everything was handheld. I stabilized the footage in After Effects, then built a scrolling map background and dropped it onto the footage. I edited the whole thing together in Avid and showed it to the head writer.

We agreed that the old lady didn’t add much to the bit, but still wanted to comply with Jay’s wishes of having an old lady portray the Mom Mom. So I brought in a voiceover artist, the excellent Vanessa Marshall, to create a new Mom Mom voice, and started building a completely computer-generated old lady bust to become the computer personality of the parody.

I had my work cut out for me. I only had 24 hours to design, build, animate, output and color correct that character, and also have it look halfway decent. The model I built is a mix between Tweety Pie’s grandma and Norman Bates’ mom. I flattened out the skin on her face and used Photoshop to paint on makeup (blue eye shadow, red lipstick and rouge, and a little shadowing under the chin). Then I used the same hearts motif on her dress as on the outside of the GPS device, and started configuring the model for lip sync.

Tweety Pie’s Granny meets Max Headroom

The splines that define her mouth and chin each got a virtual “bone,” with rules defining how much different parts of her face moved with the movement of each bone. Using the new voiceover, I created the mouth movements first, then moved on to animate her head movement. I blinked her eyes and moved her eyebrows around to help with the acting, and got a pretty good effect in the time allotted. If I’d had another day, I would have been able to make the acting better, but I didn’t have time for that level of subtlety, and anyway, since she was on a screen-within-a-screen, I wanted her to stand out with her movements being a bit more exaggerated.

A test render of the lady with lighting

I changed the scrolling map background to something that looked computer-y, but was not so busy, then composited it all together again in After Effects and output to the Avid.

The art department’s practical version vs. the computer-generated model, all composited together

Here is a link to the final ad. Not the most hilarious parody in history, but it was fun to do a bit of a departure from the usual and the ABC joke at the end, though lost on the audience, was a fun way to end it.

Dude. Seriously.

Damn you Disney Hall. Damn you to Hell!

I attended the Toyota Series for youth concert with my 9-year-old daughter and her friend yesterday morning. I lucked into the tickets, and was grateful for the chance to do something cultural for a change. The program was to feature Debussy and Ravel under the title of “The Impressionists,” and it was the L.A. Philharmonic sawing on the fiddles, so I figured it had to be good.

Having been forced into many such Philadelphia Orchestra events as a kid, I felt for my daughter’s friend, a boy of 10 who seems to spend half of his waking hours gripping an imaginary machine gun and making shooting sounds. So I tried to keep him interested by telling him what was going to happen: The warm-up, the entrance of the first-chair violinist – the last to be seated – before he struck a note and the entire orchestra would tune to it. Then the conductor would come out, shake his hand, raise the baton and the hall would be transformed, the many instruments becoming the one voice of the composer.

And so it went, up to about measure 14 when an actor, dressed as a surfer dude (his name, appallingly, was “Dude”), carrying a beach chair and wearing a Madonna-style headset mic, set the chair up on the stage. A bone-thin lady actor, posing as the stage manager and also wearing a headset, stopped everything to act out a scene with him.

What followed was unwatchable. They portrayed stereotypes, him the nit-wit Spicoli who wants the orchestra to have him “see the music” as advertised, her the bitchy schoolmarm who, against her better judgement, wants to “reach” the moron with music.

And while the orchestra was supposed to be in on it – the conductor stiffly read lines into a hand mic, with the slow-motion forced enthusiasm of a single person trying to hold a baby for the first time – the musicians looked increasingly distressed by each interruption. Though the scene was acted poorly, you could tell it was rehearsed because the first and second chair violinists would roll their eyes and slump in their seats just before anything happened. At least the audience only had to sit through it once.

The music was Debussy;s “La Mer,” and when it wasn’t parsed by instruments it was accompanied by cheesy, lo-resolution shots of the ocean that dissolved back and forth with pans and glides on famous Impressionist paintings. The overall effect was to contextualize those great works with 1970s van art.

Maybe it’s cultural, but I was taught never to talk down to kids. Although, come to think of it, the few classical musicians I’ve known tend to talk down to everybody, so maybe they were just customizing the condescension to suit the program. Add to that the obnoxious kid behind me who kicked my seat the whole time, and it felt like trying to enjoy the Mona Lisa while sitting on a Southwest Flight from Vegas to Reno.

They could have taken a page out of the Nickelodeon Manifesto, or even shown it to one child before staging this show, because, even with the thundering crescendos of the third act and the Dude and the Stage Manager yelling ever more loudly, the young crowd grew more and more restless and upset as the morning wore on. Just like the violin section.

In any event, it sucked ass.

On the way out we ran into another school family, and the grandmother in the group summed it up best when she said, “Do they think so little of Los Angelinos that they have to explain the music to an idiot for the rest of us to understand it?”

Maybe it was the influence of the Patrons on the event. After all, it is Disney Hall, and this brief foray away from more highly-produced Disney products sent the 1,000-or-so kids in attendance screaming back to the Disney Channel or, for the rich ones, to “High School Musical III” at the El Capitan. At the very least, many of the families had to pop a Disney DVD into the player in the minivan to restore calm.

Today they did the second half of the concert, featuring Ravel’s “Bolero.” Maybe it’s The Dude having a fistfight with Bo Derek, but I doubt it because that would be entertaining.