I guess every little kid, no matter where or when they were born, clutched at least one stuffed animal to comfort them as they drifted off to sleep. For me it wasn’t the standard Teddy Bear or whatever animal form may have been a favorite in the late 1950’s. No, mine was this yellow and now mainly featureless stuffed dog.
This one was special then because it had a music box inside with a winding key that protrude, probably from the unseen underside in this photo. It’s special to me now because my dear old and late great dad performed surgery on its unseen underside – a music boxectomy! Note the eerily compressed and rounded nature of the skull of this mystery girl’s head. Who is she? Why is she coiffed like that? Answers provided at the end of this post!
Lullaby and goodnight, with roses bedight
With lilies o'er spread is baby's wee bed
Lay thee down now and rest, may thy slumber be blessed
I’m not 100% sure but I’d be willing to bet my dad learned to sew when he had a part-time job at Russo’s Leather & Upholstery in old South Los Angeles. I think that’s what the name and the location were. I know we found at least a couple of the leather items (a knife case and a wallet or two) Dad had made for himself and held up over 60-70 years, much like the stitching he had done on my old favorite stuffed dog.
The portrait is a hand-drawn silhouette of my profile made by a long-forgotten elementary school teacher. The shape of my hair is a product of its compression under the skullcap clamped down on my head by bobby pins. It was the pièce de resistance of the 1960’s Brownie Girl Scout uniform I had proudly worn to school that day.
In my mom’s house, it still hangs on the wall next to a similar portrait of my younger sister and just over a mounted and framed photo of my younger daughter. This arrangement provides an interesting juxtaposition between my daughter, my sister and myself. More on this in a later and timelier post.
So, at last, back to Norm MacDonald and how I just barely though still indelibly know and appreciate his comedic gifts. He played for a very limited period a very small but important role on one of my favorite sitcoms of all time that, fortunately for you, is still broadcast on some channels that show such things. Norm MacDonald was Rusty Heck on ten episodes of The Middle that originally aired 2010-2018 and can still be seen on broadcast or streaming.
The Middle was and is an American sitcom about a lower middle-class family facing the day-to-day struggles of home life, work, and raising children. I thought of my family at the time as being in a similar state throughout most of the show’s nine seasons (2009-2018). Whoever wrote it got both my sense of humor and sense of pathos around all the events experienced by most families at the stages portrayed.
The Middle is the Mike Heck (one of the main characters) of sitcoms. It’s seemingly simple, clearly capable, and not clamoring for approval — but those who take the time to get to know it are surprised by its depth of feeling.
The main characters were the nuclear Heck family. Working parents Frances “Frankie” and Mike were doing their best to raise their three children who were quite different from each other.
Somewhere between unraveling Brick’s social ineptitude, bolstering Sue’s confidence, steering moody Axl to a promising future, and finding time for Mike, Frankie finds that the joys of life exist not in the uncommon highs, but in the middle of all the chaos.
Oldest son Axl started as a popular but lazy teenager who did well in sports but not academics and ended as a slightly more worldly and responsible adult, but still a guy. Since I only had girls, Axl was the child I related to the least; I still found him to be interesting and amusing and a possible role model for my daughters’ future foils.
Only daughter and middle child Sue started as an enthusiastic, chronically unsuccessful and socially awkward preteen. Not surprisingly, as the mom of two girls who were close to that age, I could relate Sue’s trials, tribulations and triumphs to those of my own daughters. Thank God by the time the show ended Sue had become a more successful, less awkward (in all ways) burgeoning and generally self-assured young woman with a whole life of opportunities in front of her
Youngest son Brick started and ended as an intelligent but introverted compulsive reader. My girls had some of these traits too. The growth and development of this character were also similar to a lot of what my kids went through
As the seasons rolled out The Middle introduced additional family members (from both sides), coworkers, neighbors, bosses, childhood and adult friends, other community members and of course love interests for the growing children. Most of these characters brought their own individual idiosyncrasies into the lives of the not abnormally dysfunctional nuclear Heck family. At the same time, as I’ve said, I could see a lot of normalcy and familiarity when comparing the inner and outer workings of the Heck family with my own. So I was enlightened, entertained and educated by what happened in and around Orson, Indiana (the fictional town where they lived) in nearly all of The Middle’s 200+ episodes.
Norm MacDonald’s character Orville “Rusty” Heck was Mike’s younger brother who, along with their widowed father Big Mike, was added as recurring character in 2011. Since I only had a sister I couldn’t relate at all to the relationship among all the Heck men. Since my husband was the youngest of four boys (no girls) in his family, in retrospect I might have learned a thing or two about him from watching them. Since we’re now divorced, I guess it doesn’t matter a lot if I did. On the other hand, Frankie had a sister (portrayed by SNL’s Molly Shannon) and an intact parental unit (refer to the Conehead family from SNL’s early years) whose dysfunctional relationship I could totally relate to. As a hopefully final SNL connection, Chris Kattan played Frankie Heck’s car dealership coworker in The Middle’s early seasons. Now the SNL – Middle circle of comedy is complete!
Rusty Heck’s (though presumably not Norm MacDonald’s) character started and ended as a lazy drunk who would commit to things and never follow through. Again, the relationship between the Heck brothers, as it played out, was often similar to the relationship between my husband and his brothers.
In 2015 while trying to thin out some of their hoarding father’s massive stockpile of junk, Mike reached the poignant realization that he may have bullied his brother Rusty a bit too much as kids and turned him into the hapless man that he grew up to be.
This strain was relieved a little later that season when, to Frankie’s astonishment, Mike invested their meager family assets in one of Rusty’s crazy business ideas which by the following year had become so successful that Rusty’s ex-wife came back in pursuit of the Heck brothers’ diaper business.
The true to life brotherly poignancy continued in 2017 when Mike and Rusty looked into assisted living facilities for their father.
MacDonald’s final appearance as Rusty came in 2018 when Mike thought his extravagant college graduation gift to Sue may have been stolen.
It’s a show about Middle America (hence the title), and really about all of America—how we get by day-to-day, raise families, go to work and school and homecoming games, drive each other crazy while loving each other, and hope for the future if only the kids could get into college. This is a comedy with a beautiful mixture of sharp humor and heart. I found all of this to be a pretty normal family dynamic. There’s a scene in the season three episode “The Wedding” where Mike’s irresponsible brother Rusty (Norm Macdonald) is getting married at the Hecks’ house. People are asked to say a few words but the only thing Rusty can think of is a quick “thanks,” and their father can only muster a “ditto.” Mike is asked to say something and is going to just say a quick word too, but then he decides to actually say more. At first his speech is awkward and painful, and he’s getting looks from his wife to get to the point. But then he does get to the point. He talks about how when we die it will say on our tombstones that we lived, say, 1963-2038, and it’s in that dash in between that we live our life. After laughing at the episode for 20 minutes and then hearing this incredible, simple wisdom, I started to cry.
You can’t choose your family and you love them, most of the time, anyway.
Let’s take a trip in the WABAC Machine (look that up too, kiddies) to the very beginning of SNL, back when I myself was young and hip and stayed up late. I want to put in a small plug for a real comedy pioneer whose talents can still be appreciated, possibly even by some members of the generations who are identified by letters at the end of the alphabet. I want to highlight the late great Gilda Radner.
Always the pioneer, Gilda died too young before most of the other original “Not Ready for Prime Time Players” except John Belushi who died from a drug overdose in 1982. By contrast Gilda’s killer was ovarian cancer which took her at age 42. Her death, for better or worse, raised awareness about this obviously female only type of cancer.
SNL debuted in the 1975-76 TV season and I can still usually recall the names of all the original cast, especially the three women who created so many timeless IMHO characters: Laraine Newman, Jane Curtin and Gilda (As far as I’m concerned she can be recognized with just the one name as long as it’s not confused with the classic Rita Hayworth film and character of the same name – look that up, too). BTW, according to Wikipedia, all three left the show after the 1979-80 season so you young whippersnappers can have a pass if you don’t know them since even your parents may not!
Jane Curtin was the second ever “Weekend Update” anchor, starting in the fall of 1976 as a solo until she of course had to be paired with a male anchor. Jane held her own over those years against the relatively and almost as enlightened for the time feminists Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray. Wikipedia notes a frequent feature of “Weekend Update” during this time was “Point/Counterpoint”, a send-up of the then-current 60 Minutes segment of the same name with James J. Kilpatrick and Shana Alexander. SNL‘s version of “Point/Counterpoint” featured Curtin and Aykroyd as debaters, making personal attacks on each other’s positions. These bits often included Aykroyd spewing the phrase, “Jane, you ignorant slut” with Curtin frequently replying “Dan, you pompous ass”. Too bad that terminology is still applicable to many today.
Also included in those early “Weekend Updates” was Gilda Radner’s character Emily Litella. Radner’s Litella character was prone to misinterpreting topics (leading her to present editorials on such things as the Eagle Rights Amendment – a malaprop!) and not being aware of her error until Curtin would correct her, after which Litella would cheerfully say “Never mind.”
I just hope, and hope most would agree, that Gilda’s first stereotypical female character is less prevalent today in real life while the latter may still be pretty commonplace. In that case, based on the local TV news I watch now, men have been promoted to consumer reporters. I haven’t seen these reporters refer to bodily functions on camera, but I think SNL still does. Young people can check me here if you want.
In conclusion on the subject of Gilda, ladies please note, again per Wikipedia, in Rolling Stone’s February 2015 appraisal of all 141 SNL cast members to date, Gilda Radner was ranked ninth in importance.
[Radner was] the most beloved of the original cast…In the years between Mary Tyler Moore and Seinfeld‘s Elaine, Radner was the prototype for the brainy city girl with a bundle of neuroses.
After recently and only barely catching the end of an announcement about the loss/death of a well known and loved comedian named Norm, I dug around in my old brain to try to match the first name up with a last. Crosby popped up much more readily than MacDonald. Please let me edify and explain to you why that was and I hope by the end we will all mark the passing of these and other merry men (and women) with the requisite mirth. Meanwhile, bear with me as I meander through what and who have made me laugh over my 66 years.
Norm Crosby was an American comedian who died of heart failure 2020 at the ripe old age of 93. Norm Macdonald, as most of you probably know, was a Canadian comedian who died of leukemia just a few months ago at the way too young age of 61.
Crosby was often referred to as “The Master of Malaprop” (look it up) delivered from the perspective of a friendly blue collar (even though he sported a tux in many of the Rat Pack – look that up, too – venues he played) regular guy next door. If you don’t get the 20th century reference, you might have heard him as the judge in 8 Crazy Nights or seen him as a K-Mart employee in Grown Ups 2. I haven’t seen either one!
In a strange but somehow poetic irony, MacDonald tweeted a series of malaprops on Crosby’s passing. Read this carefully, children, to understand and appreciate this erudite type of comedy and at the same time maybe figure out what malaprop is.
I like to remember Norm Crosby back at the pinochle of his career, before he got old and came down with a touch of gregarious reluctance. His primary position subscribed the wrong stuff and he ended up on the sturgeon’s table where he peacefully aspired.
I guess most people today know MacDonald from his end of 20th century five season (1993-98) run on Saturday Night Live (SNL in today’s vernacular). In his second year a cast member, which also happened to be the show’s twentieth season, this newer Norm got the plum assignment to anchor SNL’s Weekend Update,” one of the few nearly timeless SNL bits because you can look up the real people featured in it.
To put McDonald’s SNL tenure in context with the arc of my life, I was a new mom when he was big on the show which of course meant I could not stay awake until 11:30 on a Saturday or really any other night. I don’t think I missed much in the way of amusement, though, because I didn’t find much to laugh at if I even knew what others were laughing about in the few shows I have caught since SNL’s prime which for me ended sometime in the 1980s.