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PopCulture25YL – May 1994: Carson on Letterman, the NIN Closer video, and More

This month in PopCulture25YL, we’re taking a look at the music, shows, video games, and whatever else we want from the month that was May of 1994.

VHS In The VCR

One Final Bow by Scott Ryan

Johnny Carson's last television appearance was reading a top 10 list on Late Night With David Letterman.

It was only a typical Letterman bit. What does that mean? That means it was quirky, surprising, funny, and the punchline gave you Larry “Bud” Melman. From May 9th through the 13th in 1994, David Letterman took his Late Show to California. This was during the height of the late-night wars, and in the short period of time when Letterman was number one in the ratings. Every night that week, Dave announced that a special guest would be bringing him the Top Ten List. But every night it wasn’t the celebrity who walked on stage it was Larry “Bud” Melman. Dave would say, “Here’s Madonna with the Top 10,” but Melman would walk out carrying the blue card filled with ten jokes.

Dave was still pulling this trick on Friday of that week, and for the fifth time, he called for a special guest to bringing him the Top Ten. This time he said, “Johnny Carson.” I was watching live when this aired. I knew the bit, but my heart still skipped a beat in the hopes that Carson would come out. Nope. Out walked Melman again. Dave was about to read the list when he turned the card over and said, “This is not the list. Johnny, can I have the list?” That is when television history was made. This time the actual Johnny Carson walked out holding a blue card…

Hmmm.

Hold on.

Just realized something.

It’s been 25 years [later] since this happened.[1] I just realized something. If you are reading this site, you are probably young. I bet you Snapchat. You probably say things like, “I don’t like that guy, he’s not woke.” You think Coffee should look like an icecream sundae. You pay with Venmo, and holy crap, you probably don’t know who Johnny Carson is.

Johnny Carson was the one and only true King of Late-Night television. I know that since 1992, there have been many fake Princes that say they were the King. They weren’t Johnny Carson. He was the host of The Tonight Show from 1962-92. He set the standard for all talk shows. The opening monologue, the desk comedy bit, followed by interviews, and then ending with a musical act. Sound like a show you’ve seen? Yeah, that show did it because Carson did it for 30 years.

He took America through Watergate, Vietnam, the civil rights movement, and God help us, Dan Quayle. He didn’t ask his guests to play Password, Monopoly or Spin-the-bottle. He didn’t sing in his car. He didn’t take to the streets to show how uneducated the populis of the country is. He just sat across from people and made them interesting. He inspired every comedian who came of age in that era. He was, and still is, the biggest television star of all time. The power he wielded is unheard of by today’s standards. And on May 13, 1994, he brought Dave a top ten list…

Paul and the band played the Carson theme again, but it was like you hadn’t just heard it 8 seconds ago for Melman. Now you were hearing it when you should—when Johnny Carson was on screen. The audience leapt to their feet. They screamed and applauded for a full 90 seconds of TV time. (That is a lifetime in television.) Johnny sat at Dave’s desk, softly slid his hands over the top of the desk, and smiled. He shook his head no. He got up, shook Dave’s hand, and walked off camera.

What we didn’t know that night was that he walked off camera forever. That appearance was the last television appearance of Johnny Carson. His last act, was to take part in a punchline for a joke that had a 5 day long set up. Sounds like the perfect way for a comedian to take one final bow.

Scott Ryan is the author of The Last Days of Letterman

[1] Laura Stewart made me say 25 Years Later just to promote this website. They never quit with the promotion around here.

The X-Files   by John Bernardy

The final two episodes of the X-Files’ first season are here, and while “Roland” is hit or miss, “The Erlenmeyer Flask” is a classic for good reason. The show definitely went out on a high note.

First, a mentally handicapped janitor—the title character of “Roland”—may be responsible for a series of murders at an aerospace testing facility, but he’s being telepathically controlled by one of the facility’s former researchers, who happens to be Roland’s identical twin brother. Mulder and Scully get to the bottom of things in standard fashion, but the real standout was the dignified way actor Zeljko Ivanek portrayed Roland in what was otherwise seen as possibly the weakest script director David Nutter had ever seen. I’d have to agree with Nutter because I couldn’t even remember what this case-of-the-week was about before I looked into it.

“The Erlenmeyer Flask”, meanwhile, is entirely memorable. It also sets an entirely different tone than any time before in the series, beginning with a car chase sequence. At the time, I wondered if it was a ploy to try to get renewed by Fox, but it works well enough amping up the stakes.

Chris Carter wanted to solidify the show’s mythology with this episode and make sure we knew it wasn’t just about aliens. The season finale was the most viewed episode of the season, which was great because it was also the best in quality.

The car being chased was driven by Dr. William Secare, who according to Deep Throat was important in revealing the truth. And after he crashes the car, it’s revealed that his blood is green. He was driving the car of one Dr. Terrence Berube, who is soon killed by Crew Cut Man in a way to look like suicide. At that crime scene, Mulder finds a flask marked “purity control” which Scully sends off to be tested. Mulder goes to Berube’s house, finds keys to a storage facility, and gets a call from Secare who tries to meet but loses consciousness before revealing his location. Paramedics find Secare but when they puncture his skin with a needle he emits a poisonous gas and escapes.

In the storage facility, Mulder finds a hidden location with five men suspended in tanks and one open tank. Meanwhile, Scully learns from Dr. Anne Carpenter that the “purity control” sample is an extraterrestrial bacteria. The next day the storage facility is completely empty, and Deep Throat arrives to reveal Berube was experimenting on humans, and when those humans were ordered to be killed he freed Secare.

Around now is when Scully learns that Carpenter and her family were killed in a car crash, and Mulder finds Secare in Berbube’s attic before Crew Cut Man kills him. Mulder passes out from the gas and is captured, so it’s up to Scully to get an alien fetus for Deep Throat’s deal to get Mulder back. Then we get the famous scene at the back of a car where Crew Cut Man takes the fetus from Deep Throat, shoots him, and takes off in the vehicle that dumps Mulder out onto the ground as it leaves. Scully tends to Deep Throat, whose dying words are “trust no one.”

This is a fast paced episode that implies a world of conspiracy while officially proving nothing because anyone who can is dead before the end of the episode. Only Mulder and Scully are left alive to make something of what they may or may not know. Is the truth worth all this? It’s a question they’ll struggle with for the rest of their show careers.

The episode ends with some passed time and Mulder telling Scully the X-Files are shut down. Then Cigarette Smoking Man takes the alien fetus into the evidence warehouse we saw at the end of the pilot.

I thought the closing of the X-Files was the show hedging its bets that it may be cancelled, but it was actually a plan by Chris Carter and the writers to keep the agents apart because production already knew about Gillian Anderson’s pregnancy at the time.

It was a good decision to go full-circle with the mirroring of the Pilot’s ending scene. It tied together everything we’d seen up to now while opening up the show into what will be—in my opinion at least—X-Files’ best season. I cannot wait to get to September so I can write about it here with you.

At The Comic Shop

Impulse arrives in Flash #92   by Steve Wandling

Mike Wierringo drew the cover to Flash #92, the first appearance of Impulse.

It’s hard to believe it’s been 25 years since DC Comics first introduced Bart Allen into continuity for the first time in The Flash vol 2: #92. Bart was actually the time traveling grandson of retired Flash Barry Allen and Iris West. After Barry originally retired as The Flash, he and Iris traveled to the distant future, the 30th century, settled and had two children. Those children, Don and Dawn Allen, inherited the Speed Force from Barry and grew up to be the Tornado Twins, heroes in their own right. Barry Allen was called back to the 20th century to save the world, giving his life as the ultimate sacrifice to mankind in the classic Crisis on Infinite Earth.

Iris stayed behind in the future after Barry’s death, raising the Tornado Twins in the 30th century. Don Allen, Bart’s father, married Melani Thawne, who was a descendant of Flash villains Cobalt Blue and Professor Zoom. Together they would give birth to Bart Allen, who had a special unique connection to the Speed Force itself because he was born from both good and bad elements of the actual force itself. Bart showed from birth that he had immense speed powers that caused him to age at hyper-speed. When Bart was a toddler, he looked like a child. Don Allen, Bart’s dad, was murdered by an alien race known as the Dominators, and Bart was raised in a virtual reality environment where his physical and mental self could appear one and the same. Outside of the VR world, his body was dying and he was only a few years old. Luckily, grandmother Iris stole Bart and brought him back to the present. Iris hoped that Barry’s Flash successor, Wally West would take Bart under his wing.

Wally showed him the ropes, and helped him control his powers to stop the de-aging process. Once Bart settled at his proper physical preteen form, he took the moniker Impulse, and became the partner of Wally West’s The Flash. Bart from there joined the Titans for a short period of time before Wally West sent him to live in Alabama because he was afraid that Bart was getting out of control. Once relocated to the “slower” life, Bart meets and learns to hone his powers by Max Mercury from DC’s Golden Age, and later Jay Garrick the original Flash. This makes Bart Allen have more connections to different generations of The Flash and speedsters than any other character.

Bart would become the fourth Flash in the history of the DC Universe. After the events of Infinite Crisis, The Flash: The Fastest Man Alive would prove to be a defining moment for Bart Allen. Not only would he rise to the ranks of being the “scarlet speedster” for the one and only time in his 25 year existence as a character, but by the time the 13 issue run was over, Bart Allen, The Flash, was dead. He was killed by his evil clone counterpart Inertia. Inertia built a machine to transfer all of Bart’s speed force powers from him to her. Although the Speed Force was drained from Bart, the power was going to cause an explosion that killed millions, and Barry sacrificed his own life to save the world.

After the entirety of the DC Universe was wiped clean due to Flashpoint, a different version of Bart Allen turns up in the Teen Titans. This New 52 Bart isn’t actually Bart Allen though. He’s really Bar Torr, a speedster sent back in time to the 21st century as a witness protection program, where he has to stay until he is ordered back to the future to stand trial for all sorts of crimes, including killing some of the people who murdered his parents. When Bar Torr is sent back to the 21st century, he is given a false identity with false memories: Bart Allen’s. He goes home, but eventually comes back to rejoin the fight in the here and now with the Teen Titans. Post-Rebirth, Bart Allen’s status was pretty much unknown, just floating through the DC Universe somewhere, until he was recently set free from the Speed Force by Barry Allen and Wally West during the Flash War and Bart was teased coming full circle, in his Impulse gear. Happy anniversary Bart!

CDs On Rotation In Our 6-Disk

Weezer – Weezer (The Blue Album)   by Bryan O’Donnell

Weezer’s first album cover was of the band on a blue background, which started a trend they use for most all their albums.

Of all the hundreds of albums I have bought over the years, there are few that I remember physically purchasing. One of those, however, is Weezer’s debut self-titled album (also known as the Blue Album), released May 10, 1994.

I remember the store where I bought it (Rolling Stones https://www.rollingstonesmusic.com/ in Chicago). I remember where it was located in the store, and I remember listening to it as soon as I got home. It was a game-changing album for me at the time.

Part of the wave of music released in 1994 that helped bring punk rock to the mainstream e.g., Green Day, The Offspring, Bad Religion, but Weezer’s Blue Album was more on the nerdy alternative side of things. Rivers Cuomo on “In the Garage” sings: “I’ve got a Dungeon Master’s Guide; I’ve got a 12-sided die; I’ve got Kitty Pryde; And Nightcrawler too, waiting there for me…”, but that was part of the charm.

Singles “Undone — the Sweater Song” and “Buddy Holly” were huge hits, and “Say It Ain’t So” is still a classic tune. But the Blue Album is truly one of those albums you can listen to top to bottom without skipping ahead. There isn’t a weak song on the 10-song album. And back when music videos were a thing, “Buddy Holly” had an iconic music video featuring the band playing at Arnold’s Drive-In and using old footage from the TV show Happy Days that helped propel the band even further.

But still to this day, my favorite part of the Blue Album is its start. “My Name Is Jonas” is one of my favorite first songs on a first album ever. Its goofy lyrics and punch-you-in-the-face guitar parts make it a great party song, and one I always turn up a few notches if I hear it in my car.

I’m not sure I understand what Weezer is doing these days, but at one point in music history (25 years ago), they were alternative rock kings. The Blue Album is not only one of the best albums of 1994; it’s one of the best in the entire decade. And that says a lot.

Huey Lewis and the News – Four Chords and Several Years Ago   by John Bernardy


Much like the riff on Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in the album’s title, Four Chords and Several Years Ago riffs on the first songs to make an impression on the members of this classic band as they were growing up. Which–as this classic 80s band wasn’t going to easily transition into the darker tone of 90s music—was a good direction to go to keep Huey Lewis and the News relevant with their seventh studio album. It also works well as an appropriate swan song for founding member and News bassist Mario Cipollina.

Four Chords is made up exclusively of popular 50s songs—such as “But It’s Alright” and “Itty Bitty Pretty One”—but the doo-wop vocal arrangements kept everything fun and anything but stale. If you’ve ever appreciated old school R&B, this one is still well worth your time.

Even while my own tastes were expanding into every new angst-y style under the sun, I still loved this album. Of course, I had all six of the group’s album before this too, so I was already a fan, but this was not a simple rehash of the band’s style up to then. The band, while paying homage their childhood, also ended up being an homage to my own childhood in its way. It’s a circular love fest of music appreciation.

Boingo – WELCOME BOINGO, SAY HELLO   by Cat Smith

Boingo is the 1994 version of the Danny Elfman-fronted band Oingo Boingo.
“Hey guys! We’re getting the BAND BACK TOGETHER!”

That’s how I always imagine the phone calls went. Danny Elfman, flush with cash and success from years of scoring films for Tim Burton and other Hollywood bigwigs, rings Steve Bartek and John Avila. Together, they take a deep breath, and jump back into the world of Boingo.

The last time they gave it a whirl was in 1990, with Dark at the End of the Tunnel. Up til then, you could spot an Oingo Boingo song a mile away. Catchy tunes, cynical, kooky lyrics, synthesizers, and a great horn section made for a distinctive sound. That distinction didn’t disappear when they reappeared in 1994 with a new album and a new name, but it had certainly taken a turn. I loved it.

The whole album, from start to finish, grabs you by the pineal gland and refuses to let go. It opens with “Insanity” —I don’t know what the inside of Danny Elfman’s brain looks like, but this song gives me a pretty good idea. The kooky cynicism is still there, and it’s certainly catchy, but this track (the whole album, really) has a maturity to it that is nowhere else in the Boingo repertoire. In addition to years of film experience under his belt, Elfman has said he was listening to a lot of Beatles at the time, and it shows. This album plays like Magical Mystery Tour’s goth cousin on acid, and it is glorious (they even honour the homage with a cover of “I Am The Walrus”).

Steve Bartek was able to play with complex orchestrations on this album like never before, and the band explored their new direction using improvisation. Songs that once would have been three minute pop hits became epic journeys. The darkly cerebral “War Again” talks about how clever smart bombs are, and is depressing only in how apt it remains to this day. “Tender Lumplings” might as well be otherwise known as “Tim Burton Says Hi”, and just when you think you are going to come out of this experience with your soul unscathed, the final track launches. “Change” is a 16 minute oratorio with as many endings as Return of the King. It is introspective, and simultaneously about stubbornness and apathy. “I like my stupid life just the way it is, and I wouldn’t even change it for a thousand flying pigs”. We wouldn’t change it either, Danny.

Boingo, (which could easily be subtitled “Not Your Mama’s Boingo”) is a lush ride from start to finish. The quirkiness we love is still there (and who doesn’t swoon when Danny Elfman sings?), but with teeth like never before. The feeling you get from the band throughout? More budget, fewer f*cks. And I wouldn’t change that for a thousand flying pigs.

The Nine Inch Nails Closer Video   by Caemeron Crain

Trent Reznor from the Nine Inch Nails Closer video

When I was a kid, I used to love watching music videos on MTV. The form has always fascinated me; this combination of audio and visual, which differs in principle from what you tend to get on television and all but the most experimental film. Of course, some are boring, but the best music videos truly play with the image as image—as sign or symbol—and evoke connections with the song that serves as the source material in a way that makes it better.

I still love the art form, but MTV hasn’t really been a source for music videos for quite some time (and I have never forgiven The Real World enough to watch an episode). And if I mention being a child it’s because that’s what I was some night in 1994 when I saw the “Closer” video for the first time.

I can’t recall for sure if this was my first exposure to Nine Inch Nails, but I want to say it was. If nothing else, it was a turning point in my life; an opening to a gateway at 13 that would meaningfully lead to where I would go as a teenager and beyond. I was fascinated, enrapt, and turned on by the feeling that I was discovering something illicit.

I had been really into Nirvana for a few years at that point, and listened to bands like Metallica and Megadeth, but this still seemed like something new; something offering me an entry into the dark underbelly of the world that I was all too interested to explore.

Mind you, I was watching the censored/television version of the video, but this was done with such style—with the “Scene Missing” cue cards and all—that it only added to my fascination. Was this video actually censored? At the time, I didn’t know and the World Wide Web didn’t meaningfully exist yet.

I still maintain that that censored version is better than the uncensored one, but I can’t seem to find it online to see if I might want to revise that position. This strikes me as an interesting inversion, as back in the mid-90s, after getting into NIN, my friend tracked down a copy of the Broken video/movie at a comic convention and we secretly watched it after his parents had gone to bed.

We were riveted even as we were disturbed. This was an object both sacred and profane; hard to find and graphic as fuck.

Today, I half-expected to find it on YouTube, and, while not quite, I did find the “Happiness in Slavery” video—probably the most shocking thing in the film—on Vimeo. (If you haven’t seen it, beware: hardcore porn is less NSFW).

This makes me all the more nostalgic for the TV-version of the “Closer” video I cannot seem to find. It made the censorship a part of the art; using that limitation as a jumping off point for innovation. And it hits on something I often feel has been lost now in this world where it often feels like everything is permitted except the objectively heinous: a certain sense of wonder in the face of the dark and mysterious.

Discovering Nine Inch Nails led me to Marilyn Manson (who, if you want to get a taste for who I was as a teenager, I labeled as sellout once Antichrist Superstar came out—I’ve since mellowed on that view), KMFDM, and Skinny Puppy, amongst others. My friend got a Wax Trax! boxset and we explored all of these industrial bands: Front 242, The Revolting Cocks, etc.

In 1997, I went to see Lost Highway—my first David Lynch film—largely because Nine Inch Nails was on the soundtrack and Marilyn Manson was in it. This was another opening to another gateway, as I couldn’t stop thinking about the film for days, and proceeded to seek out all of Lynch’s other work.

Thus it is that, after seeing the “Closer” video late one night as an early teen in 1994, I find myself 25 years later working for a website named the same.

And the video is still great, even if I can’t find the censored one:

Nine Inch Nails – Closer (Director’s Cut)

Music video by Nine Inch Nails performing Closer. (C) 1989 Interscope Records

 


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