Off the Charts: The Fresh Prince of Bel Air

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I was an avid TV-watcher as a kid.  Between Saturday morning cartoons, after-school afternoon shows, all-day Nickelodeon-a-thons, and NES my young life revolved around the Television.  Well that and action figures.

Despite all the TV-ing I did there was only ever ONE show I remember being excited about the premiere: The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.  Honestly I don’t know how I heard about it, what the promotion for the show was, and even if I was a huge Fresh Prince fan before the show (I knew several of the songs but I was deep into Guns N Roses love at this point…) but for some reason I have a distinct memory of my sister and I ending playing outside early (unheard of!) to run inside and crowd around the second TV in my parents’ room (sitting on a giant desk and occasionally requiring a SMACK on the side to work properly) to watch the very first episode.

As part of my 90s nostalgia I bought and re-watched the entire show from start to finish over the last couple of weeks.  There was a lot I’d forgotten, a lot that I remembered (and couldn’t WAIT to get to!), and some changing opinions on the show itself.  Here are my thoughts:

The show starts, as many shows do, with a cliché premise.  This one is “fish out of water.”  Will Smith, from West Philadelphia (born and raised), moves in with his rich relatives and their clash of cultures causes hilarity.  I remember as a kid only seeing the Will-side of things and reveling in his bucking of the establishment.  Watching as an adult I realize it’s more complex than that.  In the very first episode Uncle Phil (James Avery) sets Will straight, he might be a kid from the streets now, but being an adult on the streets isn’t appealing, Phil worked hard to get where he is and while Will’s revolutionary spirit is often the white hat of the show, you see the value of the Banks’ ethics too.  Similarly in another episode Carlton (Alfonso Ribeiro) comments that Will mocks him for being the “bourgie” guy he is, but in doing so he’s being as unaccepting of Carlton’s personality and much as he (Will) claims the Bel Air society is unaccepting of him.  It’s much deeper than just watching wild-Will run amok as I thought as a kid.

The show is full of lots of running themes; Will’s “look to camera,” cartoon effects, Jazz being thrown out.  A lot of common threads that are undoubtedly “Fresh Prince.”  It’s like watching live-action Looney Tunes in a way.  Even the serious moments I hated as a kid are effective now.  Try watching Will respond to his father leaving and not be affected!

The show also has some of the best bloopers I’ve ever seen.  The only unusual aspect of the show is the high number of clip shows they do.  Even in the early season.  I learned from audio commentaries on The Simpsons that this is something networks do to save money and this may be the case here.  It’s not a complaint as the clips are always the best of the show, just strange to have a second season clip show.

Another strange thing that hit me while watching it is how much has changed in the intervening time between the show’s original run and now.  The stars they mention who we lost way before their time (specifically Heavy D, Whitney Houston, and Michael Jackson), and the fickle nature of the trends as celebrities on the show who received raucous cheers who are now in the midst of relative obscurity.

My favorite aspect of the show is Jazz.  DJ Jazzy Jeff, in addition to being one hell of a DJ (a REAL DJ.  Ya know…with records…) is absolutely a riot every time he’s on screen.  You can tell he’s not a trained actor, but his part is so funny it doesn’t matter.

Here are some of my personal favorite moments:

If it’s been a while since you’ve visited Bel Air I say pick it up.  It’s one of the rare shows from the 90s that, while it does have its dated moments, is as funny now as when it was made.

Below is the REAL FULL theme song of the Fresh Prince.  As far as I know it never aired.  Only an extended version during the first two episodes.  It’s still missing two sections in the middle.  But to answer a long standing question, no the Prince didn’t take a cab from West Philly to Bel Air!

The 90s: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles the Movie

I don’t know when and where I first heard of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but I do know I joined the majority of my generation in becoming obsessed with all things mean, lean, and green for the better part of four years.  I’ve always loved turtles, I wanted to keep a giant water turtle that I found outside my house when I was about 8 and my sister and I used to make paper bowl turtle toys (turn the bowl over, make it paper feet and head, color it!) at my grandmother’s house, so when a cartoon about anthropomorphic turtles came out it must have felt like a perfect fit.

The Ninja Turtles movie was the first film I remember being truly excited about.  There had been The Land before Time when I was even younger, Ghostbusters II, and Batman the year before, but Ninja Turtles ramped up to be the event of my youth.  I remember TONS of pre-release promotional material I collected, including the awesome poster (Lean, Mean, and on the Screen!) that hung on my green-painted wall for years.  And yes it was painted green because of my TMNT love…

Despite all of this I don’t remember having any expectations for the film.  I didn’t expect it to be a continuation of the cartoon, or the re-telling of the show in live-action format.  I may have been too young for such concepts.  I was expecting to see live-action Ninja Turtles and that’s just what I got.

For me, this movie was the perfect introduction to the 1990s.  Though it was made in the late 80s and based on an 80s cartoon, the film is far more 90s than 80s.  The costumes, from April’s street gear and Danny’s slacker outfit, looks like 90s clothes, even Shredder’s MC Hammer red jump suit (complete with giant, square shoulders) looks more like early 90s than late 80s.  The musical score, with a killer synth theme, didn’t have the distinctive “Final Countdown” sound that marred synth in the 80s.  In fact this is the first movie I can recall that heavily featured rap music, not just as a soundtrack item (though there was an awesome credit scroll rap track that still gets stuck in my head…) but in the background as what was on the radio that we, the kids seeing the movie, were listening to.

This song plays right after “Cowabunga!” at the end of the film.  It still plays periodically in my mental soundtrack…

I recently rewatched the film and, objectively, I can say it was a fantastic herald for the decade and is still a terrific movie.  While some might consider the background dated, to me it speaks so clearly of the time it was made and it never detracts from its effectiveness.  Yeah the foot soldiers steal 10-inch tube TVs and VCRs but in 1990 something like that would have been a kind of luxury item.  As well as something a ninja could conceivably flee on foot carrying.

Even the turtles themselves, essentially man-sized muppet outfits, are surprisingly emotional.  You believe their animatronic faces.  This is aided by the voice acting, which, in most cases (Raph’s Brooklyn accent being the outlier) came close to matching what we were used to hearing on the cartoon show.  Even Splinter’s voice became the model used for later TMNT features…though never close to as well…

The action sequences are remarkable, which is surprising as the stunt guys are wearing massive foam-rubber suits and I attribute THIS movie to sparking my interest in martial arts, which extends to this day (not the cartoon, which I’ve also seen recently and it has very little fighting I’ve realized!)

The non-turtle actors led by Judith Hoag, the best live-action April, and Elias Koteas, the quintessential Casey Jones, never seem out of place or make the very weird subject matter seem as odd as it is.  They play it believable so you believe them.  They are enhanced by a score of excellent secondary characters, Danny, Charles Pennington (April’s Boss), Tatsu (one of my favorites, “Ninja! Vanish!”), and an incredible live action Shredder.

It doesn’t just “hold up” as a good movie, it actually is a good movie.  It never has a dated cringe-worthy moment that references some long-lost, time-stamped, disposable concept.  In many ways the humor and references are more like Looney Tunes, in that they have a timeless feel or harken back to already-established icons, such as the old-school surfing terms, Three Stooges, Rocky, or the famous James Cagney “you dirty rat” misquote.

I wonder if newer generations of kind can appreciate this film for what it is. Or if music-video-style film making, flashing light imagery, and over-shiny CGI has altered the fundamental image of what an action movie should be.  To me, this is the Raiders of the Lost Ark of cartoon pop culture, a great marriage of subject, style, and execution.  And, to me, a memorable way to open the decade.

Interesting to note, this is the official trailer from the film, I actually remember seeing scenes from it, but the voices were not the same as the finished film.  Nearly every “masked” character has a different voice in the theatrical release!

Coming Soon: The 90s in Review!!

Ah the 90s… I will always consider myself a child of the 80s…but I was a teenager of the 90s. So while some of my favorite childhood memories are deeply rooted in the kid-culture of the 1980s, my adolescent memories are more firmly based in the bedrock of the 1990s.

There has been a fair share of 80s and 90s nostalgia in the last few years and the people of my generation reach adulthood and look back longingly and the culture we grew up in. From VH1’s I Love the 90s and Nickleodeon’s 90’s Were All That, the 1990s have had a resurgence in the last few years. I personally both love and cringe at the glory that was the 1980s and 1990s and became excited to share my personal favorite and LEAST favorite things about the second second decade I experienced.

My insightful RevPub colleague unintentionally got this ball rolling with her Clueless post, and I got to thinking about all of the great things the 1990s gave us. We’ll be discussing TV, movies, music, general culture from the era, and hopefully will be able to reach the rest of our generation in celebrating the decade that gave us the fall of MC Hammer, the creation of the first-person shooter, the re-rise of the boy band, the horrible innovation of reality TV, and the tragic end of music on “music television.”

These, like previous posts, won’t be broad history lessons but personal memories of the 90s. So enjoy, we all have different perspectives and will remember distinct memories of where we were the first time we saw DVDs, Rap Metal, or 3D Graphics!

PS: I planned to have a nice snazz-graphic ready for this post…unfortunately my wonderful Vaio went into cardiac arrest on the morning of 2/19 and is no longer with us.  New PC arrives Thursday…  Hopefully snazz-graphic will be ready by the first 90s post next week, a look at how the 90s started for me: A review of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Movie!