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15 Educational Facts About Back to School

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No one expected Back to School to be a hit. But the Rodney Dangerfield comedy—which saw the legendary comedian starring as Thornton Melon, a self-made millionaire who attends Grand Lakes University with his son, Jason, and becomes the most popular man on campus—ended up becoming the second highest-grossing comedy of 1986 (only Crocodile Dundee made more). To celebrate its 30th anniversary, here are some facts about the only film that ever dared to pair Dangerfield with Robert Downey Jr., Sam Kinison, and Kurt Vonnegut.

1. HAROLD RAMIS MADE A KEY REWRITE.

In the original draft of the script, Thornton still tries to motivate Jason by attending his college, but he was a "poor schmo." It was Harold Ramis who suggested it would be a funnier movie if Thornton were rich. Dangerfield convinced Orion Pictures to delay production and hire Ramis to rewrite the script.

2. JIM CARREY WAS CONSIDERED FOR SAM KINISON'S ROLE.

Jim Carrey was eventually deemed too young to play Professor Terguson. Years later, producer Chuck Russell remembered Carrey when he was tasked with directing The Mask (1994).

3. IT WAS THE FIRST TIME WILLIAM ZABKA REALIZED HE MIGHT BE GETTING TYPECAST AS A VILLAIN.

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When William Zabka—who played Johnny Lawrence in The Karate Kid and Greg Tolan in Just One of the Guys—landed the part of Chas in Back to School, he started to notice a pattern forming. "When Back To School came around, that was the first time I thought, 'Hey, wait a minute. This is starting to happen too much,'" he said.

4. ROBERT DOWNEY JR. WAS SHOOTING SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE AT THE SAME TIME.

The then 20-year-old actor burned the candle at both ends then. He told Rolling Stone, "I'd fly back to Los Angeles for a couple of days during the week to shoot the movie and then fly back and, 'Live, From New York, It's a Tired Young Man!'"

5. SALLY KELLERMAN ONLY KNEW RODNEY DANGERFIELD FROM HIS BEER COMMERCIALS.

Sally Kellerman admitted to Orange Coast Magazine in November 1986 that she "didn't really know who Rodney Dangerfield was," only having seen him in his Miller Lite commercials. Therefore she "wasn't just flipped out of my mind at being the woman who lifts him up. I thought, 'Oh, whoopee! You're going to get to play his love interest.' Ye gods, I knew I'd made it." But the two got along. "The second day we met, he said, 'Did you change your hair?' And I said, 'No, did you?' After that I liked him so much. He's such an odd guy."

6. GRAND LAKES UNIVERSITY WAS REALLY THREE DIFFERENT COLLEGES.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Southern California, and California State University, Los Angeles teamed up to portray the fictional Grand Lakes University. The one college Dangerfield applied to for his higher education was the University of Wisconsin. He said, “It took 40 years, but I finally got here.”

7. THE MOVIE'S LOCATIONS PROBABLY LOOK FAMILIAR.

The big oral exam was in the Nimitz Room of Bob Hope Patriotic Hall, where Jennifer Beals (well, her body double) danced in the final scene of Flashdance (1983). Dr. Diane Turner's residence is the same home where Jamie Lee Curtis gets terrorized by Michael Myers in Halloween (1978).

8. ZABKA TRIED TO MAKE CHAS FUNNIER AND LESS OF A BULLY.

"I actually tried to have more fun with Chas, because I thought, 'I’m going to be funny now. I really don’t want to just play a jerk,'" Zabka explained to The A.V. Club. "So I actually put on a funny walk and I had a scarf a bunch of times. I made him way more funny than he actually turned out in the film. They cut out most of my funny. In fact, the director [Alan Metter] pulled me aside one day and said, 'We need you to be more like the guy you did in The Karate Kid. You’re coming off too likable and funny.'"

9. ZABKA AND DOWNEY JR. MADE MUSIC TOGETHER.

Chas and Derek Lutz hung out in Downey's hotel room, where Downey would play his keyboard and Zabka would play his guitar. The two also watched movies and tried to figure why Christopher Walken was "so genius."

10. RODNEY WAS IN HIS ROBE A LOT.

Zabka and Dangerfield first met early one morning in a Madison, Wisconsin hotel elevator. Dangerfield wore a blue robe with his hair sticking up. After Zabka introduced himself he asked Dangerfield why he was in a robe. “I gotta get in the sauna," Dangerfield replied. "I gotta get the pot out of my lungs.” [Laughs.] “You, you’re young. You can handle it, but me I gotta get it out.”

Kellerman got the impression that the star of the movie was a "very serious guy on set." She noted that he wrote notes in his script every night, sitting in his robe.

11. THE DIVERS WERE EXPERT COLLEGE DIVERS.

Director Alan Metter asked the divers to "do their worst" to play the Grand Lakes diving team.

12. DANNY ELFMAN WAS THE COMPOSER.

Danny Elfman and his band, Oingo Boingo, were in the movie playing "Dead Man's Party." "It was just a quick thing. I can’t even remember if it was one or two days," Elfman tried to recall. "It was funny because Robert Downey Jr. was sitting there at a mock mixing board to mix the band and we were essentially lip synching the tune."

13. IT WAS DEDICATED TO ESTELLE ENDLER.

The "For ESTELLE Thanks For So Much" message that appears before the end credits was dedicated to Rodney's manager, and Back to School's executive producer, Estelle Endler, who died during filming.

14. EVERYONE SHOULD HAVE PAID MORE ATTENTION IN LAW CLASS, BECAUSE THERE WERE A LOT OF LAWSUITS.

A husband-and-wife screenwriting team claimed they wrote the basic plot of the movie in their screenplay Second Season, which they submitted to Orion Pictures in 1979. Alan Metter sued Orion for not paying him all he said he was due. Dangerfield later counter-sued for suing without reasonable cause. Casting director Caro Jones sued the producers of Back to School and said she did not receive full pay or the proper screen credit.

15. RODNEY MIGHT NEVER HAVE GOTTEN RESPECT, BUT KURT VONNEGUT DID.

In 2002, Kurt Vonnegut told Indianapolis Monthly that he was a fan of the film, and remembered all of the lines about him. "'Hey, Vonnegut, can you read lips? F**k you!' I loved it. And it earned me more respect from my druggist and my dry cleaner here in New York than anything I’d ever done."

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The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Turkey Day Marathon Is Back
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Shout! Factory

For many fans, Mystery Science Theater 3000 is as beloved a Thanksgiving tradition as mashed potatoes and gravy (except funnier). It seems appropriate, given that the show celebrates the turkeys of the movie world. And that it made its debut on Thanksgiving Day in 1988 (on KTMA, a local station in Minneapolis). In 1991, to celebrate its third anniversary, Comedy Central hosted a Thanksgiving Day marathon of the series—and in the more than 25 years since, that tradition has continued.

Beginning at 12 p.m. ET on Thursday, Shout! Factory will host yet another Mystery Science Theater 3000 Turkey Day marathon, hosted by series creator Joel Hodgson and stars Jonah Ray and Felicia Day. Taking place online at ShoutFactoryTV.com, or via the Shout! Factory TV app on Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire and select smart TVs, the trio will share six classic MST3K episodes that have never been screened as part of a Shout! Factory Turkey Day Marathon. Here’s hoping your favorite episode makes it (cough, Hobgoblins, cough.)

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11 Bite-Sized Facts About Cannibal! The Musical
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Back in their film school days, the creators of South Park made a twisted tribute to Rogers and Hammerstein. Cannibal! The Musical is (very) loosely based on the life of Alfred "Alferd" Packer, an American prospector who resorted to eating his travel companions in the harsh winter of 1874. Below, you’ll find a buffet of bite-sized facts about this weirdly upbeat black comedy. Bon appétit!

1. IT ALL STARTED WITH A GAG TRAILER.

In 1992, Trey Parker was studying film at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where pretty much everyone knows all about the legend of Alfred "Alferd" Packer. Indeed, when a new restaurant opened up on campus in 1968, the student body chose to name it after this famous man-eater. The restaurant’s slogan? “Have a friend for lunch.” As a joke, Parker rounded up some of his fellow film majors and spent three days shooting a phony trailer for a nonexistent movie called Alferd Packer: The Musical. Included in the ensemble was Matt Stone, with whom Parker would go on to create South Park.

Once the Alferd Packer promo was finished, those who worked on it weren’t sure if they could turn this concept into a feature-length picture. Fortunately, the trailer was a huge hit. “People thought it was really funny,” Parker told The Denver Post, “so we went around … and said, ‘So do you want to invest?’” Thanks (for the most part) to donations from a few CU grads with wealthy parents, Parker and his co-stars amassed a $100,000 budget.

2. LIANE THE HORSE WAS NAMED AFTER TREY PARKER’S EX-FIANCÉE.

At age 21, Parker was all set to marry his high school sweetheart. “We had plane tickets, the dress was bought, the church was paid for,” Parker shared on the DVD commentary. Then, about a month before the wedding, he caught his bride-to-be with another man. Devastated, Parker broke off the engagement and came up with an unusual way to get even. “I really wrote this movie for her,” he said.

A major character in Cannibal is Liane, Packer’s beloved horse, who leaves him for another rider. The two-timing equine was named after Parker’s former fiancée. Some artistic license was taken here, as there’s no proof that the real Packer ever owned a horse named Liane—or that he ever wistfully sang about being on top of her.

3. AN AVANT-GARDE LEGEND WAS CAST IN A MINOR ROLE.

World-renowned for his experimental filmmaking, the late Stan Brakhage taught off and on at the University of Colorado, where he met Parker and Stone. The two convinced him to appear in Cannibal! as George Noon’s father, who gets about two minutes’ worth of screen time.

4. PARKER’S DAD WAS IN IT, TOO.

Just like Stan Marsh’s dad in South Park, Trey Parker’s father, Randy, is a geologist. In Cannibal! The Musical, he portrays the Breckenridge judge who sentences Packer (played by Trey) to death.

5. “SHPADOINKLE” WAS MEANT AS A FILLER WORD.

In addition to penning the Cannibal! script, Parker also wrote the film’s musical numbers. The first of these is “Shpadoinkle Day,” an offbeat tribute to “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! Parker knew that the first verse had to include a positive, three-syllable word, but couldn’t think of any that fit. So he used the made-up term “Shpadoinkle” to plug the gap until he could come up with an alternative. However, the creative team liked “shpadoinkle” so much that it stayed put and became one of Cannibal’s running jokes.

6. THEY SHOT IN THE COURTROOM IN WHICH PACKER WAS ACTUALLY TRIED.

On April 6, 1883, Packer was put on trial at the Hinsdale County Courthouse in Lake City, Colorado. Over the next few days, he admitted to dining on two of his dead travel companions—one of whom he supposedly killed in self-defense (the other died of natural causes). Packer was found guilty of murder, but avoided the hangman’s noose by fighting for a second trial, which took place 30 miles away in Gunnison. This time, he was charged with five counts of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to 40 years in prison. However, while Packer languished behind bars, public opinion slowly turned in the cannibal’s favor. Under near-constant pressure from The Denver Post, Governor Charles S. Thomas pardoned Packer in 1901.

More than 90 years later, Parker filmed the trial scenes of Cannibal! The Musical at the still-standing Hinsdale County Courthouse. About halfway through the movie, the judge delivers a big speech in which he sentences Packer to death. His on-screen monologue was copied word-for-word from the court transcript of that 1883 Lake City trial.

7. AS THE MINERS SING “THAT’S ALL I’M ASKING FOR,” YOU CAN SEE PARKER MOUTH THE WORD “CUT.”

It goes by fast, but you can see Parker call "cut" to end the shot at the 3:06 mark in the clip above.

8. PARKER USED A PSEUDONYM FOR THE OPENING CREDITS.

Parker billed himself as "Juan Schwartz" in the cast of Cannibal because, according to the movie's website, "Trey doesn't like seeing one person's name plastered all over a movie's credits." Since he is properly credited as writer and director, he likely felt the additional acting credit was a bit too much. Incidentally, Packer called himself “John Shwartze” while evading the law before his arrest.

9. A FEW SONGS WERE DELETED.

The original cut of Cannibal! The Musical ran for two and a half hours, but thanks to some major-league editing, the runtime was reduced to a breezy 93 minutes. “There were fights about that from the get-go, but I give credit to Trey for being the toughest critic,” producer Jason McHugh told MovieMaker Magazine. “He had the maturity to know that a musical comedy about cannibals can’t be two and a half hours long.”

In the streamlining process, two musical numbers got the axe. The first was a quick little dirge called “Don’t Be Stupid,” wherein some nameless miners tell Packer’s group to postpone their journey until springtime. The other was “I’m Shatterproof,” a rap/funk song that Packer, hardened by his recent ordeals, delivers during a bar fight. Also deleted was a reprise of “When I Was On Top of You.”

10. COMEDY CENTRAL WOULDN’T BROADCAST IT.

Cannibal! was distributed by Troma Entertainment, an independent production company best known for creating The Toxic Avenger series. When South Park began to emerge as a major player on cable TV, Troma’s co-founder, Lloyd Kaufman, assumed that Comedy Central would jump at the chance to air some of Parker and Stone’s earlier work. Instead, the channel flatly refused to air Cannibal.

Kaufman was sent a rejection letter from Comedy Central, which read: “Thank you for submitting and re-submitting Cannibal! The Musical, but it is simply not up to our standards for broadcasting.” Troma forwarded a copy of this dispatch to Parker. Today, it’s prominently displayed in his office—at Comedy Central!

11. IT HAS BEEN TURNED INTO A STAGE MUSICAL ON MANY OCCASIONS.

Can’t get tickets to The Book of Mormon? Perhaps you can catch a live reenactment of Cannibal! The Musical instead. Since 1998, the movie has been seen more than 60 stage adaptations. There’s no “official” version of the theatrical show. As such, acting troupes that might be interested in performing Cannibal! have to write their own scripts based on the original movie. 

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