I Really Love This Thing Mallory Ortberg Wrote About Robert Townsend
Robert Townsend squeezed more fathering into the show’s 40-second intro than most of our own dads did during the entirety of the 90s. The suspenders, the wife dip-and-kissing, the distribution of apples instead of cookies to his disappointed children — Robert Townsend represented the Peak Sitcom Dad high-water-mark. Bob Saget prepared a way for him in the wilderness.
“After me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.”
Most importantly, though, Robert Townsend is responsible for Hollywood Shuffle, easily one of the greatest movies about movies of the last fifty years. It’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty meets The Jerk meets Sullivan’s Travels. It’s the sharpest satire with the warmest heart. It took seventeen days to shoot, but two years to film. The budget was about $100,000 and the box office was over five million — not bad for a movie that received next to no promotion from its own studio. Townsend borrowed film stock from other filmmakers and occasionally paid his cast in gas:
By the time I was finished I had $40,000 in credit cards. What can’t you charge in this country? I racked up wardrobe, catering, film stock. I would tell my cast, ‘I can’t pay you now but come on down to the Shell station and I’ll put gas in your car.’ ‘See those 20 cars?’ I’d tell the attendant. ‘Fill them up. Visa.’
“It was crazy…A lot of times we had to steal locations, and you can go to jail for that in California. People say, ‘Why didn’t you hold that shot? Why didn’t you zoom for another close-up?’ But they don’t know that the police were coming! I could be in jail! And I look at the movie now and say, ‘Ah, I should have, oh, I would have!” But it was my first time out. I hear Woody Allen reshoots 50 percent of his movies. I couldn’t; my credit cards were overcharged.
Some of the best novels are about struggling writers; some of the best movies are about struggling actors. Hollywood Shuffle is about a struggling actor named Bobby Taylor, and is excellent. Bobby works at a fast-food stand called Winky Dinky Dogs (with the brilliant John Witherspoon playing Winky proprietor Mr. Jones), where he is not appreciated and must wear a deeply degrading paper hat. The hat has two hot dogs coming out of it. Bunless hot dogs, like little naked meat horns.
Robert Townsend is a genius.
An Excerpt From “A Really Long Conversation About Fashion and Museums”
Anna: Remembering those practical, daily uses of clothing is also something that gets glossed over. When we think of the 1920’s, we might have some idea of how people dressed in seeing elaborate preserved dresses in an exhibit, or maybe via vintage fashion magazines or Baz Luhrmann’s COMPLETELY historically accurate Gatsby adaptation. But it creates this collective vision of all American women in the 1920’s running around in Chanel drop waist jersey dresses. As progressive as such a dress might have been in its era, it was still an outfit for the privileged. When someone asks you to think of what the working woman in the 1920’s was wearing, do we have an image available? Today, there are people who wear McQueen, but if fifty years from now you were to do a retrospective of the Fashions of 2013, it wouldn’t be–
Haley: It wouldn’t all be Balenciaga space sweaters.
Anna: Exactly. It’s the disconnect between everyday fashion and high fashion, and all the differences therein even when they overlap. Grunge is a good example; as different as it might be from punk, they’re still very very white subcultures, and are probably more associated with music than clothing. There’s this need to not strip the clothes of their meaning, to not just say “oh well a flannel shirt is a flannel shirt.” Well there’s a difference between a flannel shirt that Marc Jacobs shows on Perry Ellis’s runway in 1994, a thrifted flannel shirt worn by Kurt Cobain, or a flannel shirt that some suburban kid bought at the mall because he wants to be Kurt Cobain.
Haley: Yeah, there’s–especially with fashion, but with most subcultures–I feel like there’s this urge to categorize and dismiss as quickly as possible. Quite literally in the case of Perry Ellis and Marc Jacobs example, in that he put forth what he thought people should be wearing. And they literally dismissed him. He was fired from Perry Ellis. But when we inevitably have a Marc Jacobs retrospective, which I do believe is just a matter of time–though probably not while he’s still alive. Stay safe forever, Marc Jacobs, I’m knocking on wood–that Perry Ellis show will be seen as a turning point in his career. But at the time, it was really used as evidence to discredit him. To say “it is just a flannel shirt,” is to say clothing can’t be an indicator of larger social mores. Then when people start talking about why this item of clothing does speak to bigger contexts, they get accused of thinking too hard.