Sunday, May 03, 2015

Paging Mike Moore: I Could Use a Title, or Even a Punchline

I’ve written stories since I could write words, even started a couple of novels as early as 3rd or 4th grade, but I’d never finished a book when I met Mike Moore in high school. He’d finished two novels (on a manual typewriter no less). The one I remember best, Bugs Bunny Died for Your Sins, a slapstick send-up of issues surrounding teen pregnancy, including an evil Mother Superior and her black market baby ring. It was good. It was funny. It was like nothing else I’d ever read.

I made Super 8 movies at a young age, too, but mine never became anything more than a nice shot here and there. Mike had made a whole series of shorts by the time I met him, including what we called “The Staff Film,” a remarkably funny pseudo-documentary about his high school journalism class. These films were made in collaboration with best friend Neal Velgos, and most of the work I saw reminded me of Mike’s beloved Hal Roach shorts of the 30s, deliberate slapstick, all the more comical for their prolonged suspense and slow burn reactions.

Mike was the first person I knew who made me realize the limits of my own intellect. While I was a horror movie fan and a rock music fan, Mike devoured great comics (ranging from the underground to the best of Marvel) and comedy (from Charley Chase to Matt Stone and Trey Parker). Still, our passions for movies and books were complementary, and I was always studied at his feet. Mike was not only encyclopedic in his knowledge of all of his favorite subjects but he was constantly coming up with stories—sophisticated plots—based on whatever absurdity we faced in our day to day lives. I wish I could think of an example right now, but that was his brain not mine.

In college, we lived in neighboring dorms, and we’d cross the street to go to the movies and raid Quik Trip for late night snacks. (The Red Hot Beef Burrito was a favorite that I have little doubt contributed to both of us developing early heart disease.) Mike taught me the pleasures of Miller Lite, cold pizza and so many TV shows we watched in his dorm room—especially the early years of David Letterman and the 90 Minute weekend Second City Television. Mike also had a large collection of Super 8 movies, and he’d set up his projector and show movies for the whole floor about once a week. It was with Mike that I first saw so many Laurel and Hardy shorts—“Them Thar Hills,” “A Perfect Day,” “Busy Bodies,” “The Music Box,” and “Brats” as well as the feature Sons of the Desert. And we watched countless Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes, as well as Tex Avery’s cartoons with MGM.

I wouldn’t have gotten involved in the Student Activities movie club without Mike’s encouragement, but together we began to pick movies for the college’s Student Union. We also took part in the school’s film festival together, and I first saw countless movies at his side—Boudo Saved from Drowning, Rules of the Game, Robot Monster, Jules & Jim, Night of the Living Dead, all the original Evil Dead movies, all the original Mad Max movies, Polyester, and the Meaning of Life…. And then we took Dr. Leonard Leff’s Hitchcock class together, falling for then-obscure greats like Blackmail and Young and Innocent. Anyone who knows my habits knows Hitchcock is one of my most private obsessions, yet I first really got to know those movies at Mike’s side.

It was during a lecture (let’s say on the MacGuffin as if I could remember) by the wonderfully unassuming and earnest Dr. Leff that Mike drew a picture of Bugs Bunny with a balloon asking, “Eh, what’s a MacGuffin doc?” He didn’t draw it for me to see it. I just saw it on his paper, and I laughed out loud. Why? Because it was the most inappropriate thing I could do. This would be repeated many times during my churchgoing days with his family. He seemed unable to hit a single note in key, but he sang anyway, which always got my funny bone. The effect was quadrupled by the fact that it was a Catholic church, which meant no one sang very loud in the first place....If my quaking body wasn’t obvious, my occasional outbursts were.

Mike’s mind never quit working, but he did seem to stop putting his ideas on paper. His love of classic comedy was greeted with suspicion by academia. In workshops, he became self-conscious about how others would react to his work and quit sharing it, even if he didn’t altogether quit writing it. I remember occasionally seeing some spoof of an interview he’d written with Daffy Duck discussing the turbulent Porky years, or whatever (I’m not doing it justice), and his stuff would always put me close to tears. A running joke between us was an idea for a 5th Grade Boys Network, a channel that would show the sorts of extreme and offensive programming 10 year olds would actually like to watch, based on our shared stories of our 5th grade note-passing, art, homemade comics, etc. The Simpsons, Beavis and Butthead, Tick, South Park….everything from Judd Apatow movies to Adult Swim would have fit in our format, but our format was an idea Mike was developing long before Bart Simpson ever voiced his first “Oh man….”

I may not have ever entered a comic book store if I hadn’t known Mike, but, because of him, I read everything from Frank Miller’s Daredevil to Cerebus to Watchmen and, eventually, Walking Dead. The only time I ever went to a comic convention, I went with Mike, and I learned all about the inking, penciling and writing of Batman during one of its finest periods in the early 70s. In case I haven’t made it plain, my relationship with Mike was a non-stop, generally both fun and funny, learning experience.

Life pulled us in different directions over the past decade or so. I was married into his family through the 90s, and he still lived in my hometown, but if I was back there, there wasn’t much time to see him. Still, his mother lived in Kansas City until just a few years ago, and we’d occasionally go out together when he was here. I remember going to some show one night with Mike and my friend Erica, and I remember they hit it off. He made a point of saying that he hoped we all three get together again, a moment almost out of character. I wish I could remember what movie we saw that night, but I can’t and I have no one to tell me. Mike and Erica are both gone now, as is Mike’s mother who he was visiting. Erica died five years ago. Mike’s mother died two weeks ago, and Mike two days ago. When people leave, they take so much with them.

I’m writing all of this because, on one level, I simply need to say how much I’ll miss Mike and how much of my life has gone with him. But I’m writing for another reason, too. I’m writing because Mike truly was so smart and so talented that, in a just world, I wouldn’t be the one to have to tell you about him. If life was fair, you would know his name. You would know him for one of his books, or you would know him as the creative mind behind the Fifth Grade Boys Network or you might at least know him if you were the sort to read writing credits on your favorite animated TV shows. 

Instead, academia undid Mike’s confidence in his work. Then, after over two decades of service, Mike was passed over for promotion at Waldenbooks, and he wound up taking a job at a Hastings. The last time I saw him before the hospital, he was harried. It was a Sunday afternoon, and he was working the registers alone at Hastings. I stood around the store for the better part of an hour, but he did not get enough of a break for us to have anything approaching even a brief conversation.

The very last time I saw him, he was hooked up to machines and unable to speak. He did, however, manage to make me laugh. When I asked him if there was any good TV in the hospital, he shook his head and widened his eyes in exclamation marks of disgust. He wasn’t joking, but his timing was perfect. That alone made me hope. 

Laughter does that. And that’s just one small reason I’ll miss, Mike, his ability to make me (and everyone else around him) laugh. I could go on about the larger reasons, but, if Mike were here, he’d stop me, probably by doodling a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

The header might say, “Don’t take life too seriously” over a picture of the rabbit smacking on a carrot.

“After all, Doc,” his cartoon balloon might say, “You’ll never get out alive.”

And, of course, he'd get just what he more laugh.