5 Real Problems That Accidentally Created Pop-Culture Icons
Rarely does truly great art come from somebody setting out to make it. If you sit down with a dozen cartons of cigarettes and a clown-car-sized bottle of whiskey, determined to write the Great American Novel and finally earn the respect of Ernest Hemingway's ghost, all you'll end up with is a tobacco addiction and a raisin-shaped liver.
You're way more likely to create something that will endure for generations if your goal is to do literally anything else. Or, like in the following stories, the world crumbles around you and you just roll with it until golly gee, you've crafted a masterpiece. Only then will Ghost Hemingway respect you. While drinking all your whiskey. Specter or not, he's still Hemingway.
George Carlin Became The Greatest Comedian Ever Due To Massive Tax Debt
Some time ago, I angered a lot of troll-people by failing to blindly worship at the seven dirty feet of George Carlin, despite my making it perfectly clear that I adore him. Well, here we go again, because George Carlin only became the greatest comedian in history because of the big, bad IRS.
Carlin told jokes for half a century, but for the first half of his career, he wasn't a rabble-rousing, truth-bomb-dropping genius with zero filter and nary a fucks to spare. He was merely ... silly. Early Carlin was a hodgepodge of goofy faces, wacky voices, naughty words, and character comedy like the Hippy-Dippy Weatherman ("What if a guy did the weather, but on pot?"). It was funny, but mostly surface-level funny, not "inspiring comics and non-comics alike for generations to come" funny.
The large "L" means "large low-pressure center." I am not making a joke.
By the late '70s, Carlin was seriously considering leaving the comedy clubs behind, hitting Hollywood, and becoming a big important movie star. One minor issue: Due to terrible financial decisions made during the 20-year bender that was his career (not to mention a cartoonish 70 percent tax bracket), he owed the tax man over $3 million. And they tend to get awful serious with a money mountain that large, no matter how awesome you are at fart jokes. This ultimately forced Carlin to abandon the idea of scouring Hollywood for film roles, and instead embrace the road (and guaranteed money) all over again.
For the rest of his life, even after clearing his debt and guaranteeing he'd never have to do another phone ad again, he toured nonstop. Why not retire to a cushy film life as soon as financially possible? Well, because a funny thing happened on the way to the next gig: He got awesome at it. Thanks to constantly writing new jokes and constantly retelling them, his humor quickly became deeper, his delivery stronger, his arguments and analyses more logical, and his vulgarity more brutal. He truly became the George Carlin most people think of when they hear that name. The world heavyweight champion of free speech who once challenged us not to laugh at the idea of Porky Pig raping Elmer Fudd. The guy Comedy Central named the second greatest stand-up of all time (jobbing only to Richard Pryor). All because the IRS did that thing they do that we all hate (their job).
George's place for his stuff would've fetched a pretty penny on the foreclosure market.
Oh, and if you think I'm stretching for the sake of controversy, then a thousand plagues on you and all you love. Also, I have backup: George Carlin, who in 2001 admitted all that debt work "... made me a way better comedian. Because I had to stay out on the road and I couldn't pursue that movie career, which would have gone nowhere, and I became a really good comic and a really good writer."
And an even better connoisseur of wacky faces (hey, if you can do them, why wouldn't you?)
So for the first and likely only time ever, I thank the IRS. Mainly because now, I can tell fart jokes forever without forking over 70 percent of my pay.
The Batman/Superman Dream Team Exists Because The Comics Industry Almost Died In The '50s
Wonder Woman: Dawn Of Those Two Other Guys approaches, and will probably take every dollar we have left after Star Wars: Insert Disney Joke Here. Batman and Superman fighting crime / each other has made DC pornographically rich, and all it takes to enjoy it is accepting that being hyper-powered and nigh-invulnerable means jack dick without a powerless, coulrophobic growl-chimp punching people by your side.
The tights-and-undies equivalent of letting your little brother win at checkers once a year.
So whoever thought to stick those two together must be a genius of Kryptonian proportions, right? Sure -- if you consider a conservative use of paper to be "genius." Because that's really the only reason Bruce and Clark are sittin' in a tree today. They had a couple casual quickies on '40s radio, but comics-wise, their universes were mutually exclusive. Each hero fought their own villains, bedded their own women, and thought-bubbled their own boring, droning exposition. They'd sometimes co-model for the cover of World's Finest Comics, the monthly they'd shared since 1941, but that meant fuck-all content-wise. Superman got a story, Batman got another, and the two never interacted.
Fans of super-pyramids, super-bumper cars, and super-dude-juggling were sorely disappointed.
Then came the industry crash. Kids who had once devoured comics grew up, careers and family dominated their time, and that goddamned Great Depression hadn't produced enough babies to fill the void. World's Finest, like many other comics of the time, started rapidly losing readers and money. To save on costs, the big bosses at DC started shaving the size of their books, giving their remaining audience less material while charging the same outrageous 15 cents as always. Shockingly, this only alienated readers more, which prompted even more page-shaving. By 1954, the books had dipped from 100 pages (issue #1) to 68 (issue #70). And by #71, that 68 had shrunk to 36.
You can't do shit with 36 pages, especially since the company had zero interest in Sophie's Choice-ing one of their most popular heroes over their other one. Their only options were to A) water down both stories until even a preschool puppet show had more depth and character, or B) make it one big story featuring both cash cows. They chose B.
Facing their arch-rival, Generic Mobster Who Conveniently Forgets He's Shooting At A Fucking God #6732.
The story they came up with -- Lois Lane discovers Superman's secret identity again and gets mindfucked again until she decides she was wrong again -- wasn't terribly original (though having Clark pretend to be Batman and vice-versa is probably Superman's least insane identity-protection plan ever). But it was enough to whet readers' appetites for more team-ups, and more we did get. Sixty years later, we're still getting them, still loving them, and still debating who would win in a fight.
A fight between an invincible space god and a dude who's in really good shape.
I don't get you comic book people at all.
Hip-Hop Started Because Instruments Were Unobtainable
And now I break from really famous people/aliens and look at really famous cultures. Namely, hip-hop, the musical answer to the eternal question "What happens when systemic racism keeps too many people too broke for too damn long?"
In the past, we've mentioned how hip-hop DJ'ing originated with kids like DJ Kool Herc and Grand Wizard Theodore mostly screwing around, not trying to change the world but doing so anyway. But to say that's hip-hop's origin story is like starting halfway through 50 Shades Of Grey and claiming to understand all of fanfiction.
Every "oh crap" has a meaning.
Hip-hop doesn't have one definitive starting point, though it does have a definitive starting place: 1970s inner-city New York, where black families had very little money and even fewer prospects. Obviously, this meant difficulties with buying food, paying bills, and just plain getting through each day. More importantly (for this column's sake, anyway), it meant kids who might have otherwise spent their allowance on musical instruments and lessons simply couldn't. And unless you're a street prodigy, banging on paint buckets all day will only take you so far.
Right to recording St. Anger, and no further.
Many of these kids, quickly realizing they wouldn't be making music the traditional way any time soon, settled on a new method: tuneful MacGyverism. Since all they had were turntables and their record collections, they focused on making music out of that. They'd scratch records, place one song on top of the beat from another, loop rhythm breaks indefinitely so dancing was never interrupted by boring vocal shit, and did whatever else they could think of that might sound good. Enough did, until hip-hop soon turned popular music on its head, as it still does to this day.
So the next time you complain about no-talent hippity-hop rapping singers disrespecting real music because they're too dadgum lazy to make their own, just remember that they started on a dollars-per-day income and built the most financially powerful genre in music history. That's ingenuity on an immeasurable level.
Lord Of The Rings Became A Trilogy Thanks To World War II Paper Shortages
Without the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, there would almost certainly be no Final Fantasy, no Game Of Thrones, and no Skyrim. Basically, if you like dragons, dwarves, elves, and epic tales featuring a billion made-up names you need three brains to remember and just as many tongues to pronounce, you owe an Ent-sized debt to J. R. R. Tolkien.
And Hitler, too. Yes, that Hitler, not whoever you were thinking about. That cursed war he started is indirectly why the books got so damn popular in the first place. And not because Adolf pitched Tolkien the idea of Gollum, though we have no proof that he didn't.
In the 1940s, after the success of his children's story The Hobbit, Tolkien decided to write the world a sequel. And boy did he ever, penning a 1200-page mega-tome stuffed with complex characters (and character names), a dark and heavy storyline filled with complex twists and unexpected turns ... and walking. So ... much ... walking. Frodo probably had thighs thick as tree trunks by the time he got to Mt. Doom.
LOTR was as far removed from its prequel as a hiker-eating grizzly is from The Berenstain Bears Learn To Share. But that wasn't the book's big issue -- the issue was how crazy fucking huge the thing was, and how determined Tolkien was to release it as one fucking volume. Never mind how it would've run well over three pounds (roughly 90 pounds today, or 140 Bald Eagle Bucks) and priced itself out the goddamn market and into obscurity. No, Tolkien wrote it as one story, and one fucking story it would stay.
"I got eleventy-one problems, but your wallet ain't one."
Then came a rebuttal from the Great War, Part Deux. In 1940, Tolkien's native England instituted paper rationing, designed to guarantee the war effort always had enough supplies, even if it meant ticky-tacky fluff like newspapers, books, and decent toilet paper dwindled into obscurity. It took until 1949 -- long after Hitler and company fucked off for good -- before the government felt comfortable enough to let its civilians use paper all willy-nilly again. But even then, everything still had to be unofficially rationed, if for no other reason than to give everyone's ass a comfy wipe for once. Devoting 1200 pages to God-knows-how-many copies of Tolkien's precious was simply out of the question.
His publishers would only agree to release it in chunks of three. Not only would this allow people to actually afford the damn story, but it allowed the country's paper supply ample room to breathe. And while Tolkien did not want this to happen, he eventually relented, because Option B -- stash the manuscript in his attic and hope the rats love it -- was even less desirable.
Though any rat crushed by that thing would probably make for a delicious stew.
Over a 15-month span, all three LOTR books saw both life and massive success -- things that probably never would have happened had Tolkien got his way and dumped a Bible-sized money-sucker on a country too broke and knicker-stained to give a even the tiniest toss. Hooray for the unimaginable horrors of war!
Darth Vader Is Only Luke Skywalker's Father Because Of Cancer
OK, so nearly everything that turned Star Wars from a cheesy one-shot space pulp into an intergalactic epic for people too dumb for Star Trek (hi, me!) happened in spite of itself. Like, it wasn't until halfway through the writing process for Empire Strikes Back that George Lucas decided the talking suit of armor from Film One functioned way better as a terrible father whose only decent trait is siring the savior of the galaxy.
OK, two traits. Because he could do this.
Unbelievably, this gargantuan plot twist would not have happened if not for an unlikely assist from the worst thing since cancer: more cancer.
See, after Star Wars IV (nee I) took all of Earth's money and shoved it down Lucas's underoos, he decided he'd more than proven his genius, and thus didn't need to write anything ever again. More importantly, he didn't want to write anything ever again. So for the sequel, he hired a science-fiction writer named Leigh Brackett to handle the heavy typing (and the light typing, and the medium typing, and all of the varying degrees of typing in between). Brackett had terminal cancer, but managed to finish the script anyway. And it was thanks to her creativity and expert insight into the true meaning of Lucas's baby that Vader finally became ... the proud owner of an evil castle filled with pet gargoyles.
Yep, that was her major contribution to the franchise, and one that Lucas should be flayed alive for deleting. Darth fucking Vader lived in a big black steel castle with gargoyles and other adorable demons rolling around on their bellies. Oh, and the castle's moat? Pure lava. Brackett's Vader probably ate roast puppies with a side order of kittens too -- this guy was fucking evil. He definitely didn't sire any Skywalker -- any kid of his would have an imminent future as a gargoyle turd.
You knew he was hardcore because he willingly surrounded himself with rough, coarse, irritating sand.
Despite the obvious awesomeness of Castle Vader, Lucas hated Brackett's draft for what I can only assume were Lucasian reasons (which means no reason at all). Sadly, before he could summon her to his lair and order a rewrite, she succumbed to her cancer. So now Lucas not only had a script he didn't like, but he had no writer to make it better. His only choice was to demean himself by once again becoming a filthy, lowly writer.
Poor guy's probably still desperately scrubbing himself clean to this day.
But Lucas' draft ended up being the most important, because it was here that Luke and Vader finally started sharing more DNA than Lone Starr and Dark Helmet. This wasn't pre-planned in the least -- this was simply Lucas being forced to rack his brain for once, and somehow passing a solid gold inspiration kidney stone while doing so. A stone that simply would not have formed at all if not for an untimely death from a horrible disease.
It's almost enough to make me forgive Lucas for cutting that damn castle. I still want to see it, though. Make Jar-Jar its king for all I care -- you can feed him to the gargoyles during the climax. In fact, Disney should do exactly that. Unless they suddenly hate money.