Riff: The People of “Alas, Poor—Who?”
“Alas Poor—Who?” was a brilliant Hamlet-based game show invented on the Satellite of Love by Mike Nelson and the two small robots who live with him. Contestants could win a fortnight supply of mutton and all they had to do was successfully identify a mid- to well-known public figure by a part of their skeletal system. Alas, “Alas Poor—Who?” could not be made into a successful home version due to the supply-side issue of procuring sufficient amounts of human remains, especially since the humans in question were still using them.
Here’s a quick run-down of the gameplay shown on MST3K episode 1009, which gives a good idea of a typical game.
Presented with a femur (thigh bone), reigning champ Tom quickly eliminates:
- Actor Larry Hagman (best known as J.R. Ewing in TV’s Dallas. Ever heard “Who shot J.R.”—or seen the parody of it on the Simpsons? He was the J.R. in question.)
- Washington Post Publisher Katharine Graham (who along with the Post’s editor gave the greenlight to publish the Pentagon Papers, a major break in the Watergate conspiracy)
- Singer and actress Dinah Shore*. In the 1950’s she wanted you to see the USA in your Chevrolet.
Tom correctly identifies the femur as belonging to music artist
- Biz Markie. At the time of the sketch, Biz was probably best known for his song “Just a Friend.” The classic “oh babyyyy you, you got what I neeeeed” chorus is perfect for the inebriated to belt out during karaoke. Markie’s career as a children’s entertainer performing with “Yo Gabba Gabba!” post-dates this sketch, but is sufficiently unusual as to merit a mention here. I like to think that if the bots had a crystal ball they would have been delighted to riff on a hip-hop artist who goes from singing about the pros and cons of girls who, on one hand, got what he needs, but on the other hand, have a possible boyfriend; to performing on a childrens’ show with a seven-foot-tall orange tubular being who appears to have been ribbed for her pleasure.
Crow has to identify a clavicle (collarbone) and rules out:
- Comedian Tim Conway (Who made a name for himself in the 70’s on the Carol Burnett Show, and walking on his knees and calling himself “Dorf.” No really)
- Heart-health diet guru, Dr. Dean Ornish
- Controversial feminist and activist Germaine Greer
- Former Chicago singer, then solo artist, Peter Cetera…
- …Before correctly identifying the clavicle as belonging to“Carrie” and “RoboCop” actress Nancy Allen (Allen was also in a movie called “Dressed to Kill” in which she spent some time scantily dressed, the result being that it was very difficult to find a picture of Allen where her clavicle was visible, but her naked breast or breasts were not. The life of a blogger is a tough one indeed)
Its Tom’s turn again and he is shown an ileum (hip bone), but he cannot decide if it belongs to:
- Alaska Senator Ted Stevens… or…
- Roland Gift.
Stevens was the long-time senator (at 40 years, the longest-serving Republican senator by the time he finally left office) who famously compared the internet to “a series of tubes” during net neutrality debates in the senate. This is a rare case of an Ascended Riff, where an allusion becomes better known instead of more obscure as time passes. Stevens’ gaff came in 2006, well after this sketch. He received the dubious honor of being lampooned by The Daily Show’s John Stewart with an assist from John Hodgman. More people would have heard and recognized Stevens’ name post-tube-gate than pre-tube-gate.
Roland Gift’s name may not be recognizable, but maybe his face and certainly his voice are. Gift fronted “Fine Young Cannibals.” It was his pipes that sang the staccato “She. Drives. Me. Crazy.” of that 1989 one hit wonder.
Tom guesses it is Gift’s hipbone, but since it was actually Stevens’ he should have gone with his first instinct and stuck with the senator.
Crow has a chance to steal the win with a handful of metatarsals (finger bones)
He unhesitatingly identifies them, correctly, as belonging to actor Ralph Waite, but since he did not state it in “alas poor—“ form he was disqualified and no one wins.
Finger-owner Ralph Waite had many tv roles, but his most memorable was as John Walton, the father of all those Waltons on “The Waltons.”
*I’m not sure if Tom says “Dinah Shore” here. He mumbles the name under his breath and that is my best guess, but I have my reservations. Shore was the only one in this list who was already deceased at the time of the sketch. The decision to pick living people saved the sketch from being morbid and instead it was simply offbeat and absurd. Since this episode aired several people named have passed on (Hagman, Graham, Stevens and Waite) but they all passed after the episode aired.