Congratulations on making it to the end of another week! Unfortunately, these people didn't. Light a candle for Funeral Friday.
With his stoop-shouldered pudginess, balding pate, ever-present mustache, and vaguely dyspeptic aura, Lou Jacobi was a natural for playing henpecked husbands, seen-it-all shopkeepers, and other characters who greeted life with a sort of resigned weariness. After coming up as a comedian in the Canadian version of the Borscht Belt (the Back-Bacon Highway?), Jacobi trained for the theater in London before breaking out on Broadway, where he played the irritatingly selfish Mr. Van Daan in The Diary Of Anne Frank, a role he reprised opposite Shelly Winters in the 1959 film version. Critics immediately took a liking to him—and the more lazy and loathsome his character, the more they loved him. He eventually became a go-to actor for anyone needing an old Jewish man to play a wet blanket or indecorous loudmouth, particularly beloved by Paddy Chayefsky, Neil Simon, and Woody Allen, all of whom cast him in their plays. His catchall “ethnic” quality also let him pass for just about any Old World refugee, whether it was one of the Eastern European Krichinsky brothers in Barry Levinson’s Avalon (Jacobi had the memorable, “Vy didja cud da toikey?” line), or the Russian headwaiter he played in the short-lived sitcom Ivan The Terrible.
In perhaps his most memorable role, Jacobi played the aptly named “Moustache,” bartender and confidante to reluctant pimp Jack Lemmon in Billy Wilder’s Irma La Douce; more than just comic relief, Moustache functions as the film’s philosopher, full of pithy aphorisms (“Life is total war, and nobody has a right to be a conscientious objector”) and outlandish, probably false tales of a remarkable life (“But that’s another story…”) that end up stealing scenes wholesale from arguably the two most beloved actors of their generation. In terms of garnering the limelight, Jacobi never really topped Irma La Douce, though he also never suffered for work: He made dozens of appearances on TV shows from That Girl to L.A. Law over the years, cut a couple of successful comedy albums (including the Herb Alpert spoof Al Tijuana And His Jewish Brass), and continued to rack up accolades for his turns on the stage. And he definitely made deep impressions around The A.V. Club with these three roles: the boundaryless Uncle Morty, who grills Peter O’Toole about his “shtupping” in My Favorite Year; as the wife beater-sporting Murray who’s sucked into his television, then randomly pops up throughout Amazon Women On The Moon; and of course, Sam Musgrave, the secret transvestite who can’t help slipping into something a little more comfortable at a boring dinner party in Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid To Ask). Jacobi died this week at the age of 96.
Though he spent his entire career working out of a strip mall studio in Arlington, Texas (which, as your author can attest from having spent 18 years of his life there, is pretty far removed from the world’s cultural and creative centers), Don Ivan Punchatz was one of the most in-demand illustrators in the business. After studying with Tarzan comic strip illustrator Burne Hogarth, he was drafted into the Army in 1959, where he extended his training by producing medical illustrations and cartoon training films before entering advertising upon his discharge. But while you’ve probably seen his work on campaigns for Anheuser-Busch and Pepsi, or may have come across his animal illustrations in National Geographic, you’re more likely to have seen his extensive work in the realms of fantasy and science-fiction, like the often absurd but disconcertingly realistic book covers he designed for authors such as Harlan Ellison, Isaac Asimov, and Ray Bradbury. (He was also said to have worked on the very first Star Wars poster, but we can’t seem to find evidence to back that up; post a link in the comments if you can.) And particularly if you came of age in the ’70s, you may have seen Punchatz’s various satirical cartoons for Playboy, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Heavy Metal, and National Lampoon—including this famous cover featuring Gerald Ford that only socially pinko liberals who hate America would find funny.
But ironically, the most well-known piece of artwork Punchatz ever produced—and the one with which he could have bought and sold Arlington, Texas a thousand times over and forced all of us to live in a whimsical Habitrail of his own malicious design had he so chosen—was also his least profitable, owing to a regrettable lack of foresight and Punchatz’s general disinterest in the business side of things. In 1993, he was asked to create the logo and box art for a then unheard-of video game, taking a flat fee up front rather than opting for the far riskier percentage of future profits. The game was Doom, and Punchatz’s box art and logo became iconic, generally regarded as one of the best box arts of all time. But while he would often sheepishly joke about his missed opportunity to strike it rich in interviews, Punchatz never really let it get to him; he valued the work above all, and measured his worth in influence, teaching for 35 years at Texas Christian University and mentoring students like underground comics icon Gary Panter who continue to point to him as an influence. Punchatz died this week at the age of 73.
You are here—as are we—out of a shared love. Not only for wittily castigating anonymous strangers on the Internet and casting aspersions on their intelligence and presumed social strata based on what bands they enjoy, or for assaying a performer’s worth based on how fuckable they are, but ostensibly for the unabashed and occasionally insightful discussion of one thing: pop culture. And though the idea of pop culture as a subject for study and debate may have existed without the intervention of one Ray Browne, it’s highly unlikely that we’d be taking it all so deathly seriously were it not for his influence. Searching for a name to describe the sorely overlooked realms of history, literature, and other bits of ephemera being ignored in favor of an umpteenth reading of Ethan Frome, Browne popularized the phrase “popular culture” (and some sources, despite early evidence to the contrary, credit him with coining it altogether) as an all-encompassing descriptor of the discipline he intended to devote himself to, summing up its broad definition in a 2002 interview thusly: “It is the everyday world around us: the mass media, entertainments and diversions. It is our heroes, icons, rituals, everyday actions, psychology and religion—our total life picture. It is the way of living we inherit, practice and modify as we please, and how we do it. It is the dreams we dream while asleep.” We’re guessing that if you make a practice of regularly coming to this site, you can relate to that.
But Browne did more than just espouse the value of shared entertainment, common trends, and modern myths as a societal unifier—he put his balls and his tenure on the line by being the first professor in the nation to found an academic department devoted to it, launching an official study of pop culture in 1973 at Bowling Green State University. Almost immediately, he was ridiculed, roundly and often, by his fellow scholars, most of whom believed what he was doing amounted to little more than “wasting taxpayer money, embarrassing my colleagues, and corrupting youth,” as he told The Chicago Tribune in 1988. Most of that sniggering and tongue-clucking was directed at courses such as those devoted to studying roller coasters or the social impact of bumper stickers, but even Browne’s insistence upon applying academic analysis to television, cartoons, and pulp fiction was derided as laughably pointless, particularly coming from a man who had devoted most of his youth to studying Twain and Melville. Browne was undeterred, however, and in the end he made lasting contributions with the founding of the Journal Of Popular Culture, the Center For The Study Of Popular Culture, the Popular Culture Association, and the Popular Culture Library (which is sort of the Library of Congress for dime novels, comic books, and fanzines). In doing so, he fought back the stodgy, ivory tower world of academia, and championed a far more democratic study of what he believed were the things that mattered to real people. So all you college students who got away with writing a paper comparing Dickens to The Wire have him to thank. He also made it perfectly acceptable for people like us to tell our mothers-in-law that we make a living writing about "gross dinner scenes in movies" and waxing rhapsodic about why they don’t make Peanut Butter Boppers anymore. In short, he’s kind of our hero, and we were sad to note that this week he died at the age of 87. Thanks for upping the academy, Ray.
Have a super weekend!