Posts Tagged ‘Robin Williams’

Negativity in Shrek

August 26, 2019

(Edited to expand on the Robin Williams story because it is genuinely fascinating)

In talking about Megamind a few weeks ago, I talked briefly about Megamind being free of dated references (and there were some but easily forgivable). It made me think of the references in Shrek and how some of them were a mistake at the time and some of them were probably not mistakes at the moment but definitely are now. While some pop culture references and double entendres have not aged well, I am specifically talking about the call outs. To explain that, I am going to have to give a little bit of history. I am also going to spoil some gags from Shrek but not the whole thing. Be warned. I am not intending this as a takedown of Shrek or Dreamworks, just a bit of a pet peeve that I want to counter with some constructive criticism.

In the early nineties, the four men at the top of Disney were CEO and Chairman Michael Eisner, President Frank Wells, Roy Disney, Jeffrey Katzenberg. They worked together during the so-called Disney Rennaisance which included such animated hits as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Hercules, and Mulan. Katzenberg had been brought along from Paramount by Eisner and was loyal. However, Katzenberg developed an ego and made some bad creative and business decisions.

The big problem was that he pissed off Robin Williams during the making of Aladdin by breaking a promise. It was still fairly early in Robin Williams’ career but he was already a famous stand-up comedian, sitcom star, and movie star. The writers of Aladdin wrote the script with Robin Williams’ fast-paced stand-up routine in mind for the Genie. Robin had dabbled in Disney before. He co-starred with Walter Cronkite in the Back to Neverland attraction for Disney Parks. Katzenberg invited him to consult on a movie called Aladdin that was in development but the script was still unrecognizable from what we all would see later. Eventually, Katzenberg admitted that he wanted Williams to play the Genie. Robin was hesitant as he was already finishing work on Hook and Ferngully and was already signed on to star in Toys.

Katzenberg convinced Robin to sign on to Aladdin. Williams reasoned that doing the movie would give his kids something of his to watch and he would also be participating in the grand Disney tradition. Also, the Genie was not a big part of the movie at that point. Williams agreed to only being paid $75,000 dollars (against his agent’s recommendation). However, such low pay would come with requirements on Disney’s part. Disney was not allowed to use Robin Williams voice to sell merchandise, they were to limit the Genie to 25% or less of signs and posters, and they had to limit the use of his name in marketing. Part of this was because Robin Williams did not want his voice or character to be used to market toys and merchandise to kids. He was about the movie and not the stuff. The second big thing was that he was gearing up to work on Toys and it was a project that was important to him. Toys was directed by Barry Levinson who had directed Robin in Good Morning, Vietnam. Toys had taken fifteen years for Levinson to get off the ground and Robin did not want the marketing for Aladdin to overshadow it.

The agreement was made and Robin squeezed in voice recording sessions and song rehearsals when he was not on set for Hook or Toys. Katzenberg went back on the deal pretty quickly. He authorized a commercial that had Genie shilling Burger King. He authorized commercials using Robin’s voice as Genie. He found sneaky ways around Robin’s rules by obeying the 25% rule but reducing the size of all of the other characters. He put up big bus stop displays of Genie. When Williams saw those displays, he complained that this was a violation of the deal. Katzenberg apologized and told Williams they would all be removed and destroyed. Except, Katzenberg only had the ones in LA destroyed and they remained up all over the country as if Williams would never find out from friends abroad. Williams was pissed. After Aladdin, he swore never to work with Disney again. He later returned but only when Katzenberg was gone and Disney issued a public apology to him.

Katzenberg tried to step over Frank Wells to become Eisner’s second in command. Everybody objected as Eisner had grown close to Wells and Roy Disney did not like the uppity Katzenberg. When Wells died, Katzenberg eagerly awaited his promotion but instead, Eisner took on the role of both CEO and President. Once again, this was something that everybody (but Katzenberg) agreed with and when Roy Disney and Michael Eisner agreed on something, you knew it was important. Katzenberg was instead forced to resign as bitterness between all parties increased. Katzenberg went off and co-founded Dreamworks and basically became in charge of the animation division. He helped create some great movies at a time when Disney was not doing so great in the animation department. He was able to stretch his wings again and do some good work.

Then came Shrek which is definitely a good movie and it is full of fun. However, Katzenberg definitely influenced the script and production design in a toxic way. The first thing he did was make the villain, Lord Farqhuad, into the spitting image of Michael Eisner. Making Eisner into an ineffectual, vain, and short villain just seems petty. He also had references to classic Disney characters having them tortured, imprisoned, or implying that they were morally bankrupt. Some of the references are clever. The appearance of the Magic Mirror is a clever reference and is not really done in a spiteful way. Gepetto selling Pinnochio to Farqhuad comes off as bitter. There are plenty of other little digs and references, some are clever and some fall flat (in my opinion).

The thing is, I may not know the whole story about Katzenberg, Eisner, and Disney. I know that Katzenberg sued Disney and Eisner and that lawsuit got really heated. I just feel like these dated references were the wrong way to go. Katzenberg left Disney and helped create The Prince of Egypt and The Road to El Dorado. Both are extremely underrated and beautiful and entertaining movies. Neither references Disney or Eisner. Shrek’s shots at Eisner and Disney feel kind of gross to me. If Eisner really did him wrong, Katzenberg had a much better option in front of him. The best revenge against your enemies is to be successful and leave them completely behind. At its heart, Shrek is a great inversion of fairy tales which went against what Disney was doing at the time. It has insightful, cute, and funny moments. Katzenberg should have just ignored Disney and done his own thing which would have made his work even better.

This feeling is my goal to become more positive in my life. Why take shots at other things and people when you can promote the positivity of the world and your own product. The core of movies like Shrek are positive but negativity clings to the movie which makes me less likely to watch it again. Compare that to Disney’s model when it comes to animated movies. In general, Disney does not reference much out of its own work. Also, by only referencing itself, Disney feeds its fandom and contains their product. That makes the work more theirs and it makes the jokes hit a higher percentage of the time. The only references I can think of that break that rule are either subtle or timeless. (See: The random Chinatown reference in Inside Out). I guess the final point here is to be positive. Release your anger and do your own thing and you will be far healthier and probably more successful.

My Top 11 Favorite Stand Up Comedians

December 3, 2014

1 Kumail Nanjiani

Kumail Nanjiani is consistently the comedian that makes me laugh the most.  The stand-up specials I’ve heard had me laughing like crazy.  His bits are so well-constructed that I did a whole routine of his and got somebody else laughing hard.  He’s the cohost of Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail and is a hilarious host.  He also hosts two podcasts and guests on Harmontown all the time and he’s just so much fun to listen to.  His humor comes from very personal experience and a lot of it is mixed strangely with horror.  Most of this comes from telling stories of his childhood in Pakistan which sounds pretty terrifying.

2 Patton Oswalt

I have laughed at Patton Oswalt until tears have run down my face and black spots have formed on the edge of my vision and I needed to stop to catch my breath.  He’s so good at forming relentless stories that hit you over and over again.  His comedy is really smart and I know he’s a big comic book nerd which puts us somewhat on the same wavelength.  I find myself nodding my head a lot when I listen to Patton Oswalt.  I’m taking that as a good sign.

3 Robin Williams

If you can get in the rhythm of his rapid-fire delivery, this is really great stand up to listen to.  Robin was all over the place all the time in a manic-yet-driven style.  Beyond the pop culture references and impressions and screaming he had a point and it always felt like the truth.  Robin Williams was nothing but honest with his fans even when he was talking about his greatest faults.  Behind that bouncy and bright grin there was always a bit of a realist there.  At least, that’s how I always saw it.

4 Amy Schumer (NSFW)

Talk about honest, Amy Schumer tends to push honest through R-Rated and into NC-17 while still being classy enough to take seriously.  My first exposure to her was her special Mostly Sex Stuff which was a very accurate title.  She’s definitely not safe for work but her bits and delivery are dead on.  She also has a show on Comedy Central which is very good even if I could never watch it with my family.

5 Steve Martin

Steve Martin is one of the first stand up comedians I ever became a fan of.  I will remain loyal to him for a long time, forever if he keeps behaving the way he is.  I realize that it may be unfair to put Steve Martin on this list since he was less of a stand up comedian and more of a performance artist.  Most of the comedians I like tell stories that are mostly true.  Steve Martin did everything but tell the truth.  He was a wacky cartoon character come to life and he brought that to every role even if he was playing the straight man.  Still, I could listen to Steve Martin albums forever.

6 Chris Hardwick

Chris Hardwick has been around forever (or at least since the nineties) but only lately has he became a juggernaut in the geek and comedy worlds.  Chris has honed his craft to a sharp edge but I’ve liked him as soon as I first heard him.  He’s a big enough nerd that he adopted The Nerdist as his brand and has taken that to the bank several times over.  He rubs elbows with every comedian that matters in the business and is funny enough to hang with all of them legitimately.  I’m genuinely happy to see him show up anywhere.

7 Eddie Izzard

When I first saw Eddie Izzard, probably pointed his way by Arthur or somebody way back when, my first thought was:  “Who is this guy in the dress and why is he wearing makeup and why is nobody mentioning it?”  My second question was: “Why haven’t I heard of this guy before now? He’s hilarious.”  Like Robin Williams, Eddie Izzard doesn’t stay in one place for long and jumps along lines of thoughts towards either a conclusion or sometimes just into the ether.  His comedy is surreal and imaginitive and his accent tops it off nicely.

8 Ellen Degeneres

Yeah, I know she’s not somebody you usually think about when you think about stand up comedy.  At least not in the last decade or so.  Still, Ellen has a simple way of setting up jokes that catch you off guard.  Most of her stuff keeps away from personal stories but instead focuses on the everyday stuff we all take for granted.  Thoughts we may have half-formed ourselves but let go of pretty quickly.  Those thoughts do deserve a look though, if only to laugh at how stupid we all can be.

9 Doug Benson

Doug Benson is probably the biggest stoner who has ever held down a job with any reliability.  Get ready for a lot of pot humor since it is his bread and butter but once you’ve accepted that, it gets better.  He has a tendency to giggle along with the crowd which should be annoying but ends up being infectious. His jokes also tend to take a lot of left turns out of nowhere so I end up being caught off guard and laughing harder.  A guy I thought was a one-note stoner comedian ended up being a fun listen.

10 Gabriel Iglesias

Gabriel Iglesias is another guy who looked one note when I first heard his stand up.  He talked alot about how he’s fat (not fat, Fluffy!).  Again, this should have gotten tiresome but the thing is, he was just so damned excited about it.  His enthusiasm flows through every single word he delivers.   He talks a lot about stuff that has really happened to him or at least close enough to seem real.   He has an interesting perspective culturally who lights up like a roman candle when he tells jokes.  If that makes any sense.

11 George Carlin

I have deep respect for George Carlin.   Though, to be honest, I didn’t like his earlier work.  The hippy, dippiness of his earlier work seemed too unfocused and to insubstantial.   He was playing characters instead of speaking from the heart.  In his latter work he never talked about himself too much but he spoke straight from the heart.  He dissected language, pointed out hypocrisy and proudly stated his opinions.  Sure it could come with heavy sarcasm and deadly cynicism but I always liked that.


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