Hannah Keyser
Hannah Keyser

The Time Muhammad Ali Made a Record About Fighting Tooth Decay

Hannah Keyser
Hannah Keyser

There is a version of this story that is very short and goes something like this: Here is a real thing that exists. Now go tell all your friends about it.

The longer version of the story is this: In 1976, then-two-time World Heavyweight Champion and all-around famous athlete Muhammad Ali got together with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Ossie Davis, Howard Cosell, and assorted other people who you would think had better things to do and recorded a record called Ali and His Gang Vs. Mr. Tooth Decay. It's a sometimes-musical cautionary tale against the dangers of ingesting too much sugar aimed at—and partially voiced by—young children.

Aside from a small note in the San Bernardino County Sun that the record was nominated for a Grammy in the category of Children's Comedy Record, there is little to be found in terms of contemporary response. Since then, the record, and several pseudo-sequels it spawned—including one in which Ali is joined by President Jimmy Carter to tackle the slightly more insidious problem of drug use—have become collectors' items, but it still doesn't seem to have found a wide audience outside the realm of quirky record aficionados.

I'm here to tell you, that anonymity is largely deserved. If you see it at a yard sale for a reasonable price, certainly pick it up, if only for the cover art and value as a conversation starter. And if you do, go ahead and listen to it once or twice, but probably once is enough.

Don't want to take my word for it and don't have time to seek out an authentic copy? You can go ahead and listen to the entire thing online right here. But if you still don't want to commit nearly 40 minutes to out-of-date dental advice, I went ahead and pulled some highlights.

It starts with a song

The theme song is the best part. That's undeniable. It's groovy and genuinely catchy and has been stuck in my head for the past few days. (You can listen to it all on its own right here.) But it makes no sense. It's not even about tooth decay, and relevancy within this totally bizarre context is hardly the only confusing part. Let's consider some lyrics:

Who knocked the crack in the Liberty Bell?/Aliiii, Aliiii!

I'm not sure that's entirely true, but okay.

Who rode the ride of Paul Revere?/Aliiii, Aliiii!

That one is definitely not true. I'm pretty sure that was Paul Revere.

Who dumped the tea in the Boston Bay?/Aliiii, Aliii!/Set fire to the ship that was sitting in the bay?/Aliii, Aliii!/Destroyed the tea so our country could be free/Dressed up like an Indian, who was he?

Now this is just irresponsible educating. Even if Muhammad Ali (born 1942) was present for the Boston Tea Party (1773), I'm not sure he, or anyone else there, "destroyed the tea so our country could be free."

The chorus seems to provide some sort of explanation, saying that "Ali's always gettin' blamed for things he didn't do." But the examples seem like good things? And was anyone accusing Muhammad Ali of participating in the American Revolution? Maybe it's a conscientious objector thing. Regardless, it leads not-so-smoothly into our tale of adventure.

The Plot

Howard Cosell, with admirable aplomb, introduces us to a gang of kids facing crippling ennui and formidable philosophical questions. “What else can you do in the summer besides swinging, hanging out in the woods and making blueberry pies?” one of them bemoans. (I would have suggested expanding their baking repertoire to include peach crumble, but this doesn't come up.)

Instead, we cut to "two funny looking characters": Mr. Tooth Decay has a vaguely Russian accent, and Sugar Cuba has the sort of sniveling, weasel-y voice required of villainous sidekicks. He does not, in a case of missed opportunity, have a Cuban accent. He is, however, possibly a reference to how cavities are much like the communism in Cuba. Which is to say, bad.

Back with the gang we meet Ali, who follows the kids into the clubhouse. Upon spotting the famed boxer, the kids break out into a monotonous chorus usually reserved for reciting the Pledge of Allegiance: "Hey, that’s Ali. What’s he doing here? Oh he’s so big and handsome. Wow. Let’s get his autograph."

But there is no time for autographs. A song breaks out extolling the infinite strength of Muhammad Ali. It includes the lyric "Gang, I murdered a dead tree"—a feat that is neither feasible nor environmentally responsible. Naturally, this convinces the gang to dedicate their summer to fighting tooth decay.

But en route to meet one of Ali's allies in the fight, the gang notices that Andy and Kelly have snuck off together. Since these are children we’re talking about, get your mind out of the gutter. They’ve just gone for some ice cream! Sweet, innocent ice cream. Or so you thought. "Ice cream!? Oh no!" Ali cries, thwarting their plans.

“Hey man, that’s like taking candy from a baby,” the shopkeeper offers with an implied wink. After the gang explains their mission to Ol’ Blue Eyes, the curiously melodious shopkeeper (spoiler: it’s Frank Sinatra) and rejects his entreaties to join the fight, they’re off to a cow pasture, where Ali tries to sell them on the idea that raw milk is as tasty as ice cream. There, Brother St. John, played by noted biodynamic farming expert Ossie Davis, lectures on the value of organic food and homemade preserves. He also offers a quick primer on fluoride and some since-debunked advice to always brush immediately after eating.

When they get back to the clubhouse, the kids notice posters of sweets that look "good enough to eat" and their resolve wavers. Ali gets the gang back on track with some spoken word poetry (maybe?) about how "this won’t be easy or fun/get ready to knock him on his buns." Great stuff. But those trouble-makers Andy and Kelly are at it again. Before they can be saved, both succumb to taking a bite of sugar cake and become our first cavity victims in the fight against Mr. Decay.

Fortunately, they will also be the last victims, as apparently there's been a pretty simple solution all along. Ali spells it out, "Hey gang, let’s take this toothbrush and put it over the door because Mr. Tooth Decay won’t have nothing to do with a clubhouse that has the protection of a toothbrush. Let’s use this toothbrush from now on as a symbol of good oral hygiene."

With that the villains are defeated and we jump to Cosell announcing a match between Ali and his archenemy. "As one looks at Ali, one has to wonder what he’s thinking. This is the greatest adversary he has ever faced. Tougher than Joe Frazier and tougher than George Foreman. One has to wonder if the confidence is really there this time. Can Ali put away Mr. Tooth Decay?" If the statute of limitations hasn't passed I think Fraizer and Foreman might have a libel case on their hands for this unfavorable comparison. The rest of the match is broadcast entirely in poorly-plotted rhymes and the whole record wraps with this memorable warning: "Mr. Milkshake will have his way, chocolate fudge he just can’t budge and so to the dentist we make our way."

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Fearless Man Slices 26 Watermelons on His Stomach in 60 Seconds, Setting New Record
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iStock

Ashrita Furman, a 63-year-old New Yorker who holds the world record for setting the most Guinness World Records, just achieved another one. This time, it was for the most watermelons sliced on top of his stomach in 60 seconds, Nerdist reports.

Furman came up with the idea for the record himself, and while he didn’t have any competition, Guinness stipulated that he had to slice at least 20 watermelons to be recognized. He managed to cut through 26 melons with his tool of choice, a katana, in less than a minute. (He walked away without a scratch.)

Check out this spectacle (and serious ab workout) for yourself:

“I’m really thrilled,” Furman told Reuters after pulling off the feat. “My first reaction is I’m relieved that I didn’t kill myself and the second is that I’m exhilarated because it is not only a skillful record, but also it’s something that I invented and now it’s out there and other people can challenge it.”

Furman, who has been called “Mr. Versatility,” currently holds more than 200 Guinness records. He set his very first record in 1979 after completing 27,000 jumping jacks, and he hasn’t slowed down since. In the past near-40 years he has set the record for—among other feats—the most knives caught in a minute (54); the greatest distance traveled while juggling on a pogo stick (4 miles, 30 feet); and most grapes caught in his mouth in one minute (86).

[h/t Nerdist]

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Courtesy of Shout! Factory
No Strings Attached: The Puppet Satire of D.C. Follies
Courtesy of Shout! Factory
Courtesy of Shout! Factory

At one corner of the bar, Jack Nicholson is seducing Margaret Thatcher. At another, Richard Nixon is reconsidering the sins of his presidency. Before the night is out, Sylvester Stallone, Oliver North, and Dan Rather will all make appearances, each sporting slightly exaggerated features and misshapen heads.

For two seasons between 1987 and 1989, a fictional Washington, D.C. bar was the setting for this unlikely assembly of political and entertainment figures cast in foam and orbiting around the show’s only regular human performer, actor Fred Willard. D.C. Follies might have been the most peculiar thing to come from the minds of famed television duo Sid and Marty Krofft, and when the hallucinogenic H.R. Pufnstuf is on their resume, that’s saying something.

A screen capture from the 'D.C. Follies' television series
Courtesy of Shout! Factory

The satirical, syndicated half-hour series might not have been paying licensing fees to the UK’s ITV network, but there’s a good argument for why they should have. In 1984, the channel began airing Spitting Image, a sharp, cutting take on world affairs created by Peter Fluck and Roger Law that used hypnotically repugnant puppets to represent political figures and members of the British royal family. The altered reality allowed for skewering, with jokes and actions that would have seemed too mean-spirited in live-action made permissible by the fact that they were embodied by living caricatures. In one sketch, then-Prime Minister Thatcher wondered why the poor didn’t just “eat their own bodies,” while newspaper employees at reputed tabloid outlets were depicted as literal pigs. At the height of its popularity, Spitting Image was viewed by 18 million viewers weekly.

Although other UK comedy exports like Monty Python's Flying Circus had found success with American audiences, Spitting Image was strikingly topical and resonated best with British audiences. A series of American-oriented specials for NBC that aired in 1986 and 1987 did well, but not well enough to commit to a series. At the same time, Sid and Marty Krofft—who had made their last name synonymous with Saturday morning kid TV culture in the 1970s—were working on a show that would emulate Fluck and Law’s approach. Thatcher would take a back seat to Oliver North, Dan Quayle, and other sometimes scandalous figures in then-contemporary U.S. politics. With Willard cast as the bartender, D.C. Follies got picked up in 90 markets for syndication beginning in September 1987.

The Kroffts had experience with parody puppets, having crafted Elvis Presley in felt as far back as the 1950s and mounting an elaborate live show, Les Poupées de Paris (The Dolls of Paris), that featured topless puppets. Not quite as appalling in appearance as the Spitting Image cast, the near-life-size foam stand-ins cost between $1500 and $3000 apiece. Political cartoonists like Bob Myers, who contributed to the New York Daily News, would offer a design that puppet makers could use as inspiration for a sculpt. People with easily identifiable features, like the drooping lip of Stallone or the shock of bright red hair sported by Jim Bakker's mistress Jessica Hahn, were ideal.

Unlike Fluck and Law, who typically targeted elected officials, the Kroffts had to be more cautious when it came to legal consequences. While political figures were largely powerless to complain or litigate over puppet counterparts, celebrities tended to exercise more caution over their likeness. D.C. Follies got away with using Woody Allen, Dolly Parton, and a host of others, but Frank Sinatra threatened to sue if he showed up cast in foam. The show eventually added a disclaimer at the end reminding viewers it was meant to be taken in jest.

There was also the challenge of remaining topical in a fast-moving news cycle. Unlike most scripted series, D.C. Follies was taped just three days prior to air to avoid time-worn jokes. Marty Krofft told the press that a puppet could be crafted in just 36 hours if needed, making it easier for them to comment on that week’s headlines.

D.C. Follies premiered the weekend of September 26 and 27, 1987, an auspicious debut for a syndicated offering: It was the same weekend Star Trek: The Next Generation began airing. Often on late at night and sometimes opposite Saturday Night Live, Follies invited a number of human guest stars—Martin Mull was the first—who tried not to be upstaged by the vaguely disfigured effigies surrounding them. Marty Krofft allegedly recruited some guests simply by threatening to make a mocking puppet of them if they didn’t agree to appear.

A screen capture from the 'D.C. Follies' television series
Courtesy of Shout! Factory

Each week, Willard—who was apparently hired for his ability to make conversing with puppets seem plausible—lent a sympathetic ear to the problems expressed by his satirical patrons. The blend of characters and real guests made for some odd pairings: The real Mike Tyson once appeared to box a puppet George Bush. Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund in his familiar makeup) saddled up to the bar to help plug a new Nightmare on Elm Street movie. Krueger's nightmare: Quayle becoming president.

Mostly, though, the puppets walked in and out of frame in non-sequitur sketches. John Madden might accost Pope John Paul II; Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford were seen playing Trivial Pursuit, with Nixon admitting his Presidential Library was a Bookmobile; Madonna, Sean Penn, Jesse Jackson, Ted Koppel, and dozens of others also passed through.

Follies earned a second season while still filming its first, but ratings were never strong enough to warrant a third. (Late last year, Shout! Factory released the full series on DVD.) The Kroffts went on to produce similar puppet productions like Red Eye Express and Krofft Late Night. Nothing, however, seemed to endure quite like Spitting Image, which ran for 12 years in the UK and is currently being considered for a U.S.-based revival. Based on today’s political climate, there should be no shortage of material.

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