Idiot Disc or I'll Be a Son of a Witchiepoo:
More Cult TV on DVD
Jahnke - Main Page
n. A bittersweet yearning for things of the past." - Webster's
II New Riverside Dictionary
"Nostalgia, n. An irrational fondness for things that were
never particularly good in the first place." - Jahnke's
Glossary of Popular Culture
Not long ago, a friend and I were talking about our respective DVD
collections and whatever had possessed us to purchase certain
titles. Usually I do pretty well in conversations like this. My work
for this site gives me a handy excuse for some of the more
embarrassing discs in my library. I can dismiss them with a wave of
the hand, a roll of the eyes and a snotty, "Oh, THEY sent me
that." Unfortunately, unlike most of my friends, this one
actually reads the stuff I write. So at least with him, I can't lie
and say my copy of Showgirls
is for "review purposes only".
My friend and I realized that we both had a more than a couple
movies that we'd purchased not so much because we thought they were
extraordinary works of cinematic genius but rather because they
reminded us of our youth. Sometimes this happily coincides with a
movie that's actually worth owning, such as Raiders
of the Lost Ark. But too often, the practice not only
ruins your enjoyable memories but also saddles you with a DVD you
now have to explain to curious bystanders. For instance, I bought
Tron on DVD awhile back,
mainly because it was cheap but also because it reminded me of the
summer of '82. I'd watched about five minutes of it before I
realized that my pleasant memories of Tron
actually revolved around playing the video game and not watching the
Obviously my friend and I are not alone in our quest to buy back our
childhood on DVD. More than anything else, I believe it's this urge
that has led to the explosion of TV programs on disc. Believe it or
not, the studios aren't releasing all this stuff because of their
commitment to the art and science of television broadcasting.
They're doing this because people are buying them by the pound and
they're relatively inexpensive for the studios to produce...
particularly if they don't invest much in things like commentaries,
documentaries, and other assorted goodies.
Now I've certainly bought enough useless crap in my time to have
absolutely no authority in telling people how they should spend
their money. If you've got the disposable income and the interest,
buy whatever the hell turns your crank. Fine by me. However, I would
like to suggest that there might be finer things to spend your
hard-earned dough on than complete season sets of every TV show that
momentarily tickled your fancy during your youth. No matter how cool
it may seem at the time, how many times are you honestly going to
watch the first season of The Dukes of
One of the more obvious examples of NostalgiaVision on DVD is
Rhino's ongoing series devoted to The
World of Sid & Marty Krofft. When Bill Hunt asked if
I'd like to review H.R. Pufnstuf,
my reaction was probably much the same as any member of my
generation's would be. Absolutely. How cool is that? I haven't seen
that show in years. I'd had a good time reviewing Schoolhouse
Rock awhile back, so I figured this would be another
pleasant trip in the old Digital Wayback Machine. Well, having
watched all three discs of Rhino's complete Pufnstuf,
I have some bad news to report. A lot of you aren't going to like
this, so brace yourselves.
Pufnstuf: The Complete Series
H.R. Pufnstuf is not a
very good show.
For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, H.R.
Pufnstuf debuted on Saturday morning TV back in 1969.
It was the first major program to attempt to bring a cartoon
look and sensibility to live-action television. The premise is
explained in one of those classic unrelentingly catchy theme
songs that sets up every single piece of information you need to
know about the show in two minutes. "Once upon a
summertime," young Jimmy (played by Oscar-nominated Cockney
child star Jack Wild) and his pal Freddie, a magic golden
talking flute, were lured to a place called Living Island by a
mean old witch who wanted that flute. Fortunately for our young
heroes, they were rescued by H.R. Pufnstuf, the dragon mayor of
you do choose to invest in the complete Pufnstuf,
I highly recommend you spread your viewing out over the course of
several weeks and months. Watching more than a couple of episodes
consecutively just underscores how repetitive the show really is.
Most episodes deal with Pufnstuf and Jimmy trying to figure out a
way to send the boy back home and/or Witchiepoo's never-ending quest
to steal Freddie. Inevitably someone has to be rescued from
Witchiepoo's castle and inevitably Pufnstuf and Jimmy enlist the aid
of one of their colorful friends like Dr. Blinky and Ludicrous Lion.
For some reason, many people look back on H.R.
Pufnstuf as a classic stoner show. And yes, the show is
very bright and colorful and psychedelic but no more so than many
other pop culture relics of the late 60s and early 70s. For that
matter, it's no more psychedelic than a lot of other kiddie shows. I
mean if you're stoned, Teletubbies
looks pretty damn freaky.
Apart from the trippy visuals, the playing-to-the-cheap-seats
performance of Billie Hayes as Witchiepoo, and those damn songs that
won't get out of your head with anything less than a bullet, there
is little to recommend H.R. Pufnstuf
to contemporary adult audiences. Unlike Jay Ward's Rocky
& Bullwinkle or the brilliant Pee-wee's
Playhouse, H.R. Pufnstuf
is strictly aimed at the younger set. Both Ward and Paul Reubens
loaded their programs with references, jokes and visuals that
appealed to both adults and children simultaneously but on different
levels. The Kroffts were making a kids' show and that's just fine.
If your kids enjoy Pufnstuf,
you should buy this set for them. But if you're a childless adult
harboring fond memories of Saturday morning TV, maybe it's time to
Rhino's presentation of H.R. Pufnstuf
is pretty top-notch. Most of the episodes look great, displaying all
the burn-your-retinas color you'd expect. There's some occasional
dirt and the opening credits are a bit soft but otherwise, this is a
generally excellent transfer. One notable exception, however.
Original elements for the episode Flute,
Book and Candle must have vanished because this episode
is in considerably worse shape than any of the others. If nothing
else, it helps you appreciate how good the rest of the show looks.
Sound quality is OK. Nothing overly spectacular but if you love
tunes like "I'm a Mechanical Boy" and "Oranges
Shmoranges", you should be able to get your groove on with this
Most of the extras are restricted to the third disc, although the
premiere episode boasts a commentary by Sid and Marty Krofft. About
half of it finds Sid and Marty remembering the production of the
show. The rest is the two of them name-dropping people who have told
them they grew up on their shows. That's nice but considering the
show's only twenty minutes long, you might get a little impatient
with hearing about Sid Krofft's mutual admiration meeting with Eddie
Interviews on disc three catch up with the Kroffts, Billie "Witchiepoo"
Hayes, Jack "Jimmy" Wild, and TV historian Hal Erickson.
None of these are particularly in-depth but they're reasonably
interesting and all of the folks involved with the production of the
show share fond memories of their time on Living Island. For
hardcore Krofft buffs, Rhino also includes Irving,
a rare TV pilot from 1957. Irving
uses traditional puppets and marionettes instead of the costumed
hybrids of Pufnstuf. It isn't
exactly a must-watch but if you're a fan of the Kroffts, it's
interesting to see where they were coming from.
If nostalgia for the 70s has produced the lion's
share of the TVD sets of recent months, 80s nostalgia is trying
its best to catch up. Music rights continue to plague the
release of the seminal decade of excess show, Miami
Vice, but we have recently seen boxes devoted to such
favorites as The A-Team,
Magnum P.I. and soon
enough, V. Perhaps hoping
to inspire some nostalgia of its own, HBO has quietly released a
compilation of episodes from one of their early efforts in
original programming, The Hitchhiker.
While not nearly as well-known or beloved as other programs on
disc, The Hitchhiker does
have a cult of its own who have no doubt been looking forward to
hearing that eerie 80s synth theme song come out of their home
only is The Hitchhiker notable
as an early HBO series, it was also part of the short-lived attempt
to revive the anthology format on network television. This trend
included revamps of classics like The
Twilight Zone and Alfred
Hitchcock Presents as well as Steven Spielberg's
high-profile Amazing Stories.
The Hitchhiker was essentially
a low-rent Twilight Zone with
the pay-TV bonuses of blood and boobs. Page Fletcher was the title
character, a Rod Serling in tight jeans who would pop up at the
beginning and end of every program with his ominous proclamations
and morals. Despite the fact that working for HBO did not yet have
any sort of cachet whatsoever, The
Hitchhiker was able to attract some top-notch talent,
both in front of and behind the camera. The producers lured foreign
directors like Paul Verhoeven and Phillip Noyce who had not yet
crossed over to American filmmaking. And perhaps because of the
directors who were attached, they were able to attract both
established and rising stars like Willem Dafoe, Gary Busey, and
Considering the level of talent involved, The
Hitchhiker really should be better than it is. A typical
Hitchhiker episode involves a
fairly simple idea told in an overly complicated way with a mild
twist ending that redefines most of what we've seen. The best
episodes of this sort, like Man's Best
Friend, are at least engaging despite the fact that the
surprise ending can be seen coming from miles away. The worst, such
as Ghostwriter and In The
Name of Love, are simply confusing and filled with lapses
of logic that would have never passed muster on The
But the anthology format is unpredictable. Just as shows like The
Twilight Zone and The Outer
Limits failed to produce a classic episode week in and
week out, lesser shows like The
Hitchhiker could occasionally surprise you with an
impressive outing. The best episode on this set is Why
Are You Here?. In this one, a reporter (Brad Davis from
Midnight Express) finds more
than he bargained for while taping an expose of the wild club scene.
A young Helen Hunt also appears in this inventively told episode in
which everything we see is from the subjective roaming camera of the
reporter's film crew. This episode is a real stand-out. W.G.O.D.
is also fairly entertaining thanks to a committed performance by
Gary Busey as a radio evangelist with a skeleton in his closet,
though much more conventional than Why
Are You Here?.
None of the episodes on this two-disc set look or sound particularly
great. The picture quality betrays the series low budget throughout,
although there is some nice camerawork in episodes like Homebodies
and Ghostwriter. Audio options
are restricted to either stereo or mono, neither of which is likely
to knock your socks off. And although extras are sparse, HBO did
somehow convince directors Verhoeven, Noyce, and Carl Schenkel to
participate in audio commentaries on their respective episodes.
Verhoeven discusses how filming the episode Last
Scene led to his decision to move permanently to America.
Noyce and producer Lewis Chesler get deeper into specifics about
The Hitchhiker itself on
commentaries for Nightshift
and Man's Best Friend. And
Schenkel specifically recalls his individual episodes on Ghostwriter
and Homebodies. None of these
are classic commentaries but I really didn't expect any extras at
all from The Hitchhiker so
these are rather nice additions to the set.
Despite its place in our collective memory, most television
programming really is designed to be disposable. Yes, the best shows
can withstand years of repeated viewings but by far the vast
majority of them barely hold up for the half hour we're watching
them. Collecting these shows on disc is a tricky proposition. All of
these shows are meant to be seen in weekly increments. Collecting
them together emphasizes their weaknesses instead of their strengths
and exposes the narrative shortcuts that almost all TV producers are
forced to rely on in order to bring a show in on budget and on time.
As I said at the outset, I'm not one to judge anybody else's taste
in DVDs. If you have nothing but fond memories of CHiPs
and are dying to see its complete run immortalized on disc, more
power to you. But be careful what you wish for. Some memories are
best left undisturbed.
Jahnke - Main Page