Latka, Mad Max and the Serengeti
By Locke Peterseim, Britannica.com
Special to ABC Sports Online

We want to thank the hundreds of readers who took the time to call or write about last week's reference to "Harry Potter," claiming that it's some sort of worldwide children's publishing phenomenon and that there is currently a film version in over 3,600 theaters nationwide that had the biggest opening in Hollywood history last weekend. But if something like that was going on, we're pretty sure we would have heard about it -- we try to stay pretty on top of international pop culture blockbusters. So, no, we're not buying this "kids' wizard books and movie" thing -- we stick by our Harry Morgan/Col. Potter assessment.

The set-up: Footage was replayed of stunned Tampa Bay kicker Martin Gramatica slapping his helmet after a field goal attempt hit the upright during last week's loss to Chicago.

The quip: "I'd loved to have heard Gramatica's talk with the coach afterwards. What could he be saying? It's like Latka Gravas from 'Taxi': 'I hit ball, score zone, wood appear, plunk, no point.'"

The read: Of course you've all seen Jim Carrey in "Man on the Moon" and already know this story, but here goes.

Andy Kaufman
Latka, after a night of nik nik and brefnish.
In the early '70s, young New York comedian Andy Kaufman began appearing in small comedy clubs with an act that consisted mainly of him coming on stage and pretending to be a befuddled, naïve "foreign man." Foreign Man, who said he was from Caspier, a now-sunken island in the Caspian Sea, told stale jokes in timid, broken English, and, when confused, would jabber away in his "native" tongue. At the end of the show, having pushed his audience's patience to the breaking point, Foreign Man would introduce his Elvis impersonation and would then disappear completely into full Elvis makeup and costume and perform a spot-on imitation of the King.

On October 11, 1975, Kaufman appeared as Foreign Man on the first episode of "Saturday Night Live," lip-synching to the Mighty Mouse Theme. A year later he began doing Foreign Man on "The Tonight Show" and the "[Dick] Van Dyke and Co." variety show. By 1978 ABC had cast him in their new series "Taxi." His character was called Latka Gravas, but it was Foreign Man. Over the next four years Latka would introduce his boorish American alter ego, Vic Ferrari, marry his fellow immigrant from "the Old Country," Simka Dahblitz (Carol Kane), and create a vocabulary of nonsense words that rivaled Mork from Ork's, including "nik nik" (to love or make love), "brefnish" (an old country liquor), and "kakbolt" (whore).

"Taxi" also launched the careers, for better or worse, of Judd Hirsch, Danny DeVito, Tony Danza and Christopher Lloyd, and insured that Marilu Henner and Jeff Conaway would always have late-night infomercial work. Meanwhile, Kaufman quickly tired of the weekly mainstream grind and, though Latka made him a star, he spent the rest of the series' run alienating his "Taxi" co-stars with his prima donna behavior. After "Taxi", Kaufman worked as hard as his little Dadaist head would carry him to baffle and repel the public by wrestling women, appearing as coarse lounge lizard Tony Clifton and starring in the feature film "Heartbeeps."

He died in 1984 from lung cancer and eight years later R.E.M. wrote a song about him -- "Fred Blassie … truck stop," etc. -- and seven years after that wrote another one -- "bending spoons … pushing an elephant up the stairs," and so on.


The set-up: Two hundred forty-pound Tampa Bay running back Mike Alstott was not only stopped, but pushed back by several Rams defenders at the line of scrimmage.

The quip: "You don't see the Master-Blaster stood up like that too often."

The read: We all have own touchstone for the colossal experiment in misguided taste that was the '80s. For some it's skinny keyboard ties. For others it's the DeLorean. But for some of us, it will always be Tina Turner, speaking of rock stars who were better in the '80s than in the '90s, in a giant platinum wig as Aunty Entity, the amoral overseer of Bartertown in "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome," the third film in George Miller's post-apocalyptic Down Under series.

It was in Bartertown that Mel Gibson's Max squared off in the Thunderdome battle cage against Master-Blaster, the two-part threat to Aunty Entity's power base. You see, Master-Blaster consisted of two actual beings: The Blaster (Paul Larsson), the subverbal behemoth who dished out the pummelings and hid his simple-minded baby face under an iron helmet, and The Master (Angelo Rossitto), the evil genius dwarf who called the shots while riding on Blaster's shoulders and ended up getting tortured by being dipped into a wild pig pen, where the pig poop was used for fuel for the entire civilization, such as it was.

With the Mad Max series having run out of steam beyond Thunderdome, director George Miller went with the pig thing, becoming the creative force behind the talking-piggie flicks "Babe" and "Babe: Pig in the City." Can't wait for the return of Tina and her giant platinum wig in "Babe Beyond Thunderdome."


The set-up: On the same play, Tampa Bay was penalized for a false start when offensive tackle Jerry Wunsch, in Dan Fouts' words, "flinched from his haunches." Fouts then challenged Miller to "say 'Wunsch,' 'flinch' and 'haunches' in one sentence."

The quip: "Between Wunsch and Gooch you got the Scooby Doo villains here tonight."

The read: It was 1969 and Fred Silverman, the future head of ABC and NBC, was still a few years away from springing "Charlie's Angels," "Starsky and Hutch," "Supertrain" and "Hello, Larry" on the public. Before he could create "Jiggle TV," Silverman had even more sublime work to do. He had a notion to combine the "roaming detectives" format of Carleton E. Morse's '40s radio show "I Love a Mystery" with the good-natured teen goofiness of "The Lives and Loves of Dobie Gillis." But as a cartoon.

An initial version of the show had too much "scary" and not enough "Dobie." The artwork by Iwao Takamoto was considered to be too dark for little kids. It was then Silverman had the sort of inspiration that you'd expect from a guy who would think Meadowlark Lemon might be plausible as McLean Stevenson's best pal: why not make the dog the star of the show? Reaching for a name that would soften the series' creepy edge, Silverman went with the Chairman of the Board's mellow scat singing at the end of "Strangers in the Night," and thus "dooby dooby doo" became "Scooby Dooby Doo," though his "real" name was Scoobert.

Scooby Doo
Scoobert, shown with opposable thumb.
And thus a lunchbox empire was born. Scooby was voiced by Don Messick and his sidekick Norville Rodgers by Casey Kasem (though Norville was more commonly known by his nom-de-jinkies, "Shaggy"). They were accompanied in the Mystery Machine by Freddy Jones (Frank Welker), Daphne Blake (Stefanianna Christopherson and later Heather North) and Velma Dinkley (Nicole Jaffe). The plot template was simple: Gang arrives in deserted town/mansion/resort area. Gang meets good-hearted person trying to make a go of it in said deserted locale, but thwarted by rumors of supernatural goings-on. Gang splits up, with Fred and the girls going one way and Scoob and Shag the other. Scoob and Shag seek out food but instead find monster/ghoul/witch doctor/spooky space kook. Scoob and Shag scream and run. Gang builds elaborate trap. Trap plan goes awry, but scary entity is caught anyway thanks to Scooby's bumbling antics. Scary entity turns out to be one or more cantankerous folks trying to scare people away from site for own personal financial gain. Head cantankerous person is hauled off by police while muttering, "I would have gotten away with it too, if it hadn't been for those meddling kids and that dog."

The original "Scooby Doo, Where Are You!" series ran for three years, and we can tell you two very personal facts: (1) the addition of the lovable dog did very little to make it less scary, as evidenced by the emotional scars still in place after a Mano Tiki Tia giant living statue nightmare we had in 1972; and (2) the redheaded wonder of Daphne Blake in her violet miniskirt and orange scarf would not be fully appreciated until the onset of puberty years later. But by then, Scrappy Doo had shown up and everything had gone wrong with both the show and the country.


The set-up: Alstott easily ran in a touchdown from seven yards out.

The quip: "You talk about running downhill, that was like the man who skied down Everest."

The read: In May of 1970, a Japanese "adventure skier" (precursor to today's extreme knuckleheads) named Miura Yiuchiro set out to take adventure skiing to its greatest height: He intended to ski down the side of Mount Everest, using a parachute braking system he pioneered while skiing down Mt. Fuji four years earlier. Alas, most of Miura's 6000-foot descent was spent cartwheeling out of control down a 45-degree-angle glacier on the side of Everest, with the skier finally stopping himself just short of plunging over the edge of a precipice. The whole thing was captured on film and eventually became a 1975 Oscar-winning documentary somewhat misleadingly titled "The Man Who Skied Down Everest."

Despite several other high-profile attempts, it would be over 30 years before someone would successfully complete the ultimate black run. On October 7, 2000, a Slovenian ski instructor named Davo Karnicar skied 11,500 feet down from the Everest summit to the base camp. A former member of the Yugoslav Alpine Ski Team, Karnicar spent five hours negotiating everything from the infamous Hillary Step and crumbling ice shelves to slaloming around the frozen corpse of a past climber -- a literal Dead Man's Curve, if you will.


The set-up: Al Michaels notes that since Tampa Bay head coach Tony Dungy has turned the team around in recent years, there are much higher expectations for him and the team.

The quip: "Well it's his own version of the Peter Principle to some extent."

The read: In their 1969 book "The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong," authors Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull suggested that there is a reason people at the top never seem to know how to do their job: in the modern business world people are promoted and promoted until they finally reach a position just above their level of competence and remain stuck there. Meanwhile, the real work is forever being done by those employees still working their way up to incompetence. We leave you now to take a good look around your office, perhaps even your local and national government, and especially the commissioner's office in Major League Baseball and draw your own conclusions as to the veracity of the Peter Principle.


The set-up: Miller followed up his earlier remarks by noting what a likable person Tony Dungy is.

The quip: "You know the league, it's the Serengeti Plain for nice guys. Eventually you've got to close or you're not going to be there."

The Serengeti
A giraffe shortly before becoming cheetah chow.
The read: Survival of the fittest. Nice guys finish last. The fundamental things apply as time goes by on the Serengeti Plain in Tanzania, which remains, thanks to a highly beneficial lack of human presence, one of the last places on Earth where you can still see vast herds of animals doing what they do best: eating and being eaten. Visitors to the Serengeti National Park can watch over a million gnu, hundreds of thousands of gazelles and tens of thousands of zebras living as they are meant to, migrating across the plains to Lake Victoria, only to be eaten by any of the thousands of waiting lions, cheetahs and crocodiles. Meanwhile, the ostriches and flamingos scatter, and the elephants, rhinoceroses and hippopotamuses just stand by and laugh, secure in their haughty largeness.

However, if all this hunting and killing and eating is just a bit too "real" for you, feel free to visit the Serengeti Plain exhibit in beautiful Busch Gardens, Tampa, Fla., which features 85 percent less blood and viscera and all the beer you can drink when the ride is over.


The set-up: With the Rams on Tampa Bay's 6-yard line, down by four, Miller commented on Rams head coach Mike Martz's ability to "ring out" every last offensive opportunity.

The quip: "He does not go into that good field goal night gently."

The read: Welcome to Monday Night Football's own meeting of the Dead Poets Society -- last week it was poor doomed Sylvia Plath, this week it's Dylan Thomas, and later we'll have Samuel Coleridge. Take your pick of literary role models, kids: stick your head in an oven, drink yourself to death or develop a life-long opium addiction.

It was Welsh poet Dylan Thomas who wrote "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" (or in Thomas's case, "Do Not Go Sober Into That Good Night"). The poem, all snide remarks aside, is a powerful response to the illness and eventual death of Dylan's beloved father, David John Thomas, in late 1952. The work cries out for the father and all persons to live life to its fullest and fight against inevitable death. "Do not go gentle into that good night, / Old age should burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

Heartbroken over his father's death and the collapse of his marriage, Thomas himself shuffled loose the mortal coil the next year in New York City. On November 5, 1953, while in the midst of a reading tour and writing and rehearsing an opera, Thomas was reportedly given a morphine shot to treat exhaustion, which he followed with 18 whiskeys at his favorite Greenwich Village bar, the White Horse Tavern. He made his way back to his room at the Chelsea Hotel and promptly fell into a coma, dying four days later at the age of 39.

Since his death, Thomas has inspired millions of young people, though most skip the actual poetry-writing part and go straight to the heavy boozin'.


The set-up: Miller commented on how Washington Redskins head coach Marty Schottenheimer has turned the team around in the past month.

The quip: "This guy makes Lazarus look like a cat-napper."

The read: There are actually two Lazaruses in the New Testament of the Bible. One is known as the "Lazarus of the Parable" and shows up in Luke 16 as part of a story Jesus tells about rich man and a beggar. But it is the other Lazarus, "Lazarus of the Miracle," who most Christians recall. That one, the brother of Martha and Mary of Bethania, falls sick and then dies before Jesus arrives to heal him. Upon Jesus' discovery that he is too late to save his friend, we're treated to the shortest verse in the Bible, John 11:35: "Jesus wept." Jesus then calls out, "Lazarus, come forth," and Lazarus is brought back from the dead. The story of Lazarus is usually considered by Christians to be the strongest evidence of Jesus' supernatural power while in human form.


The set-up: Al Michaels noted that Tampa Bay running back Warrick Dunn had not run up very impressive stats this season due to a foot sprain.

The quip: "You don't understand it because he certainly looks like a Tasmanian dervish tonight."

The read: We know, you're all thinking of the little Looney Tunes hellion, who first appeared in "Devil May Hare" with Bugs Bunny in 1954 and has gone on to appear on everything from coffee mugs and t-shirts to ill-concieved late-night bicep tattoos. That "Tasmanian Devil," or "Taz," always appeared on the scene in a buzzsaw whirlwind of dust, teeth and claws.

The real Tasmanian devil is a two-foot-long black and brown marsupial with a white breast mark. Though Tasmanian devils are normally shy, nocturnal creatures, they become very aggressive when battling over their food, which usually consists of any sort of rotting carrion. At such times the small scavengers will often emit loud screams to scare off rivals -- this behavior, plus their powerful jaws and impressive teeth, gave them their formidable name. Once prominent on mainland Australia, the animals became extinct there around 600 years ago and today are found only on the southern island of Tasmania.

As for the dervish part of the description, Warner Bros. cartoons aside, it refers to the wild spinning hypnotic dances performed by some members of the Muslim mystic fraternity of the Sufi. Developed in the 13th century by Persian poet Jala ad-Din ar-Rumi, the dervish dance is part of the dhikr ceremony. Muslim priests in white robes and tall conical hats spin rapidly in place, building speed in order to shed their personal identities and enter a trance state while in pursuit of spiritual perfection.


The set-up: In regard to the Rams, Dan Fouts noted, "Variety is the spice of offense."

The quip: "Foutsy, you are such an Epicurean."

The read: Though today his name is mostly associated with the appreciation of good food, originally the 3rd century BC Greek philosopher Epicurus taught that while pleasure was the ultimate good, it was a pleasure of the mind, not the body, one should seek, and that it should be achieved through the elimination of wants, not the stuffing of the face.


The set-up: Although Warrick Dunn was clearly out of bounds before scoring a Tampa Bay touchdown, Martz and the Rams were unable to call for a replay, having already used their two challenges.

The quip: "Challenge, challenge everywhere, but not a drop to drink."

The read: In Samuel Coleridge's 1798 Romantic poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," the titular character tells a transfixed wedding guest the story of how the sailor came to be cursed forever. While sailing near the South Pole, the mariner shoots and kills a beautiful albatross that has been following the ship. His shipmates, aghast at this crime against nature, tie the enormous bird's corpse around the mariner's neck, but that act of penance doesn't spare the crew: in retribution for the crime, the mariner's ship is becalmed at the equator, where, after days under the sun, he describes the scene as: "Water, water every where, / And all the boards did shrink; / Water, water, every where, / Nor any drop to drink." Of course that's not the end of his torments -- in due course Death and Life-in-Death will show up and gamble for the souls of the crew and the mariner, causing the crew to drop dead, but the mariner to live on as a soulless husk. Oh, and later the dead crew's bodies will rise to sail the ship back to England.

Though the poem is rich with meaning about the role of nature in the grand scheme of human existence, it's mostly seen today as an example of what sort of wacky imagery you can conjure up with a snoot full of opium-based laudanum.


The set-up: Al Michaels commented that as the NFL season comes into the homestretch, tempers are flaring.

The quip: "Yeah, [Colts head coach] Jimmy Mora had a complete Krakatoa flameout yesterday. Jimmy goes off every five years."

The read: On May 20, 1883, the volcano Krakatoa on the Indonesian island of Rakata began to rumble and spew ash. The 6,000-foot volcano had been relatively quiet during recorded times -- there was "great eruption" mentioned in Javanese texts around 416 AD, but since then there had only been a moderate eruption in 1680.

Likewise, the May 1883 activity soon died down. But things picked up again a month later and finally on August 27 the island literally exploded -- the blast was heard 2,000 miles away in Australia, ash was thrown 50 miles into the air, and the shock created a series of tidal waves, one of which reached 120 feet in height and killed 36,000 people in nearby coastal villages. Seventy-five percent of the mass of Rakata was vaporized and so much ash was put into the atmosphere that fire red sunsets on the East Coast of the United States led panicked residents to call out their local fire departments. Vivid sunsets would continue to be observed worldwide for three years.

Mora's first activity occurred in 1996, when he was head coach of the New Orleans Saints. Somewhere in his diatribe after a 19-7 mid-season loss to the Carolina Panthers, the words "diddly-poo" were uttered, and then he quit. According to Miller's projections, Mora's next eruption will be visible in the Western hemisphere in November 2006.


The set-up: The measurement for a Tampa Bay first down came down to within half an inch.

The quip: "All right, they need an angstrom."

The read: Named after the 19th-century Swedish physicist Anders Jonas Ångström, the angstrom is used to measure the wavelengths of light, the diameter of molecules, and the thickness of films on liquids.


The set-up: After Miller commented on both Marshall Faulk and Warren Sapp having back spasms during the game, Melissa Stark brought up the same point in a sideline report.

The quip: "See how simpatico Missy and I are? It's like Oliver and Lisa Douglas."

The read: In the fall of 1965, successful Manhattan lawyer Oliver Wendell Douglas, desiring to escape the rat race in NYC, purchased the old Haney Place, a 160-acre farm just outside Hooterville (near Petticoat Junction). Recalling that he'd actually been born while his parents were staying on a farm, Oliver told his shocked friends that "green acres is the place for me." His Hungarian socialite wife, Lisa, who Oliver met during the war, was appalled at the idea of rural lifestyle --"Dah-ling, I love you," she was heard to plead, "but give me Park Avenue." But Oliver's love of chores and fresh air won out over Lisa's desire for stores and Times Square. It didn't hurt that Arnold Ziffel, the pig next door, was a bit on the super-porcine-genius side.

Unlike Babe, however, Arnold couldn't talk or herd sheep. But they are both in the Porcine Hall of Fame, alongside Piglet, Miss Piggy, Porky Pig, Hampton J. Pig, the Three Little Pigs, and, of course, Wilbur. Still awaiting induction are Pippo, Squealer, Hamm and HenWen.

Locke Peterseim is a senior editor at Britannica.com.

Research assistant: Dave Ihlenfeld


 
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