Friday, June 19, 2015

Want Some More?

Tuesday, June 16, 2015


This is an odd and funny little story. I rented a movie the other night called Asylum. I’m not sure why. It was a horror film, which is generally something I stay away from unless it’s a good old-fashioned ghost story. And these, sadly are very rare.

I wish I had read the back story on this movie before I started watching it, but I didn’t. And so I was confused almost from the start. To be sure, the story that had been described in the blurb was right there, when a hostage negotiator and his team are called to an insane asylum because the inmates have taken over the place, and haven’t we all worked in places like that?

Well, they haven’t just taken over the place, in some mild administrational way, but were actually killing and mutilating folks. Sure it was bloody and gory and gruesome, and not really my cup of tea. But then the film kept cutting back to an editing bay where two editors were actually watching the movie. The premise was that this was footage was from a film shoot and it was their job to whip it into something decent. “This is unwatchable,” said one of the editors. But of course they continued to watch it anyway.

And not only did they continue to watch it, but they made comments over the film besides. Funny comments that were clearly an imitation of the classic Mystery Science Theater 3000. And that’s when I became confused. Did these people actually go through the trouble and expense of producing an entire horror movie just so they could make jokes over it? It didn’t seem likely. And so I finished watching it, not really appreciating it because I didn’t know what was going on. And then I went to the Internet.

Here’s what happened. The writer of the horror movie, Chris Mancini, had handed in his script, only to be told the movie was going to be shot in Bulgaria, in an attempt to save money. The director in Bulgaria supposedly used almost none of Mancini’s script, save for the title. The result was, as the wise-cracking editor said, unwatchable. The production company decided that there was only one way to save the movie.

And so once again Chris Mancini hit the keyboard, but this time he was writing comedy. He borrowed the MST3K premise and created the storyline of the two editors watching and making fun of this horrible film, along with scenes with some other employees, and a crazed boss, around the office of the production company.

The IMDB rating for Asylum is an even three stars out of ten, and that’s probably about right. Still, I think that if I knew the back story going in, I might have enjoyed the movie more. The jokes, of course, were not up to MST3K level, but some of them made me laugh out loud. Had I gone in knowing the details of how this strange little movie-within-a-movie came to be I would have been able to fully appreciate what was, after all, a rather humorous situation. Hell, I night have even given it four stars.

Oh incidentally, the film starred both an Academy Award-nominated actor and the greatest quarterback in the history of the NFL. So there you go.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Hoping for the Big One

They all still live on the East Coast, and they want you dead, California. I was reminded of this a few months ago when I was reading an article where a movie critic wondered in how many films the Golden Gate Bridge would be destroyed this year. Well, there’s yet another movie out about a mega-earthquake, and I’ve seen the trailer, so the answer is at least one.

There was a time, not so many years ago, when the thing for East Coasters to do, particularly New Yorkers, was to pack up and go west, young man or woman, go west. Many did, but of course most did not. And those who didn’t had a multitude of excuses for not doing so, ranging from the valid, like not wanting to be so far from their family, to the absurd, such as not wanting to lose the option of buying an onion bagel at three in the morning.

And the years passed by, and they always wondered. Should I have made the move? Should I have had my California adventure? I was surprised recently when several East Coasters told me they could never live in California…because of the earthquakes. It seemed like such a silly reason. I could say I would never live in Florida because of the alligators or in Manhattan because, well, how much time do you have?

The truth is here in California I never even think about earthquakes. Until, that is, I’m actually in one.  And it is during those five or six seconds that I realize that I must be insane to live in a place where you can’t even count on the ground to stay still. And then the shaking stops and I forget all about it. Until the next one.

But don’t kid yourself, California. They want you dead. They want an off-the-chart twelve point oh quake to break off the entire state, nice and neat at the Nevada border, and then sink forever into that ocean we all seem to think is so great. And only then will they be at ease with that decision they made thirty, forty, fifty years ago. Whew, they’ll say. I could have died in that earthquake. I knew going out there was a bad idea.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Two Are Dead

The kid had made me laugh, no doubt about it. I was in a booth in a typically over air-conditioned restaurant in Florida. With me were my cousin’s husband and his son, who was sixteen and has Down Syndrome. He had just climbed out of the booth, stretched a bit, and with a heavy sigh said, “Ugh, I’m getting old.”

And that, of course, is when I laughed.  “If you’re getting old, what am I?” I said, still smiling. Then we made our way over to the salad bar.

We returned to the booth, and as we ate our salads, and then dinner, I became more and more impressed with how much this kid knew about certain subjects, primarily about current musical stars. Now admittedly, you wouldn’t have to go very far to find someone who knew more than me about today’s music. I mean, I recognize many of the big names, but ask me to name even one of their songs and I’m lost. In fact the only reason I’m familiar with any Lady Gaga song at all is because she performed one on Howard Stern.

But this kid knew them all, and what he didn’t know he’d soon learn in those teen magazines he carried around with him. And so I had to know just how far back his knowledge went. Oh, I knew he wouldn’t be familiar with most of the singers from my era, or even for an era or two after that. I figured, though, that I had to at the very least hit him with one of the biggies.

“So, have you ever heard of the Beatles?” I asked him.
“Two are dead,” was his terse and nearly instantaneous reply.

And there was nothing I could say after that. After all, the kid was right. Two of them, indeed, are dead. And with this sad reminder I returned to modern times, where I discovered that the kid not only knew the names of all the current singers and groups, but he wasn’t shy about making predictions, either.

“Next year, One Direction will play at the Super Bowl,” he said. It was obvious that he had no doubt about it, either. And while I did have my doubts, I also realized that this was not a particularly outlandish prediction. After all, even I’ve heard of One Direction, and although I can’t name a single one of their songs, I’m plugged in just enough to know that one of their members just left the group. That’s right, isn’t it?

The kid didn’t stop there, either. He also told me the two teams that will be playing in the Super Bowl, namely the Packers and the Steelers. Now, the reason I remember the teams he picked is because I’ve already written them down on my calendar. And I tell you, if these two teams are actually there, and if One Direction plays the halftime show, I’ll be listening real carefully to the kid’s next predictions. And, of course, betting accordingly.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

New Year’s Audition

The audition was scheduled to take place on December 31st, 1961, but the driver, Neil, got lost. It ended up taking him over ten hours to get the band to London. They arrived at ten o’clock at night on New Year’s Eve, or as one of the band members quipped, “Just in time to see the drunks jumping in the Trafalgar Square fountain.”

The audition took place the next day, at Decca Records. The band performed fifteen songs, including “Take Good Care of My Baby,” “Three Cool Cats,” and “Till There Was You.” They were done in less than an hour. Three of the songs played had been written by the band’s two-man songwriting team.

The band was eventually rejected by Decca Records. In their dismissal of the group, the record company stated that “guitar groups were on the way out,” and that this band, in particular, had “no future in show business.”

What was the name of this group that was so unceremoniously dumped by Decca over fifty years ago? Nobody really knows, because, like I said, they didn’t get their recording contract and so soon fell into obscurity. Nah, I’m just funnin’ with you. You know who it was.

Monday, May 11, 2015

A Comfortable Chair at the Mall

I was deep into my second month of forced exile in Florida. I was still waiting for Dad’s house to close, at which point I could pack up and head back to California. The chores, as you might imagine, were endless, with new ones cropping up each day like dandelions. I decided that going to the mall and sitting in one of the comfortable chairs I had seen there might be a relaxing way to get my head out of the game for a few hours.

I was in the middle of reading a fascinating book about the Dutch coffee trade in the sixteenth century. The writer’s description of what was a new, and clearly medicinal, beverage had inspired me. When I sat in that comfortable chair in the mall I had with me a cup of hot coffee. And I don’t mean my usual blend of coffee with cream, sugar or perhaps some Almond Joy flavored crap. No, I would drink my coffee black, as they did in the novel, and I would appreciate coffee in its purist form.

I sat there sipping the black brew as I enjoyed watching the shoppers walk by. I tried to remain focused on the moment, and not worry about all the remaining details that I would have to deal with in the coming weeks and months. Across from me, about ten feet away, a young woman had taken out her swollen breast and began to feed her infant. I observed her for a few seconds, noting how natural it seemed, and then looked away to avoid making her feel uncomfortable.

I took another sip of coffee, and when I looked up I noticed that two or three young people with clipboards had infiltrated the area. I watched as they approached passers-by and asked each one if they would like to earn forty dollars testing toilet paper. At first I didn’t believe that I was hearing them correctly, and once I confirmed that I had I simply marveled that they could repeatedly ask people that question and still manage to keep a straight face.

And then the nagging in my head began. You know, it said, this really is a fine opportunity to write about something new. Why don’t you volunteer, make a quick forty bucks and then write about the experience? I had no doubt that testing toilet paper would make for great fun, and to tell the truth I was a little curious how the whole thing worked. I mean, did they drag you off to some hidden office in the mall, have you wipe with four or five brands, hand you two twenties and send you and your clean butt on your way?

In the end my comfort won out over my curiosity, and I understood why I had never wanted to be a journalist. This was just another hot story I let slip away. But my curiosity didn’t die completely, and so I continued to listen as the clipboard folks explained to their marks how it all worked. From what I pieced together, after you filled out the paperwork you would receive a shipment of toilet paper at your home, and it was apparently from the comfort of your own toilet seat that any testing would be done. Maybe there wasn’t much of a story here after all.

At one point a young woman hustled out of the hair salon where she worked and approached one of the clipboard people. “I’ll do it!” she said eagerly. At first I wondered if she was perhaps a textbook case of an adult fixated at one of Freud’s less evolved stages, but then it came to me. This woman had to be at the mall anyway, for her job. Why not pick up a few extra dollars for doing basically nothing? Maybe she signed up for one of these things every day, perhaps even two a day. At forty bucks a pop she could build a nice little side business testing toilet paper, and God knows what else.

I took the last sip of coffee, trying to appreciate the flavor as a European in the 1500’s might, treated myself to a final glance at the breast-feeding woman, hoisted myself onto my creaky knees and headed toward the mall exit. This really had been a nice way to pass a couple of hours. I’ll have to remember that when I get back to California, I thought, although I didn’t recall any of our malls having such comfortable chairs.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Earworm: “Sometime in the Morning”

I was still trapped in Florida, waiting for my parents’ house to sell, and as I hoped for reprieve I toyed around with the iPad I had brought to liven up my confinement. I don’t even remember what I was looking for when I stumbled across this old song on YouTube. I had heard it before, of course, when it was new. But back then it was just another song on one of the Monkees albums we kids had around the house.

And now hearing it again, half a century later, I admitted that “Sometime in the Morning” was a damn good song. And why wouldn’t it be? It was, as I already knew, written by Carole King, arguably the greatest American songwriter of the rock era. (With a nod to Paul Simon.) In fact, it was co-written by King and her former partner/husband, lyricist Gerry Goffin. And make no mistake, Goffin’s contribution to the song should not be dismissed. As original and infectious as the melody is, the lyrics, too, are creative and touching, and leave quite the emotional effect.

“Sometime in the Morning” is about a man who has an epiphany, and suddenly and dramatically appreciates the woman he has been with for who knows how long. And to give credit, it’s a joy to watch and listen to the short clips of Micky Dolenz sing it in the video, which is taken from the Monkees’ both wildly popular and surprisingly short-lived TV show of the 1960’s.

Still, as I played the song over and over I eventually switched to viewing the version with just the lyrics on the screen. As the song grew on me it became harder and harder to listen to it as the Monkees, dressed as clown, Benny Hilled it up trying to cheer up some chick at a circus. The song deserved better.

I played that song every day, several times a day, for about a week. When I was driving around that hot, flat state I often caught myself singing it. No doubt about it, “Sometime in the Morning” had become what today is commonly known as an earworm. That is, that song that you play over and over in your head until it almost drives you crazy.

And apparently I’m not the only one who appreciates the song. As you would expect, so does Micky Dolenz. In fact in 2010 he recorded his first album in ten years, cleverly titled King for a Day. On it he covers fourteen Carole King songs, including, of course, “Sometime in the Morning.” In concert Dolenz has introduced it as, “A beautiful song by Carole King.” He’s absolutely right, and it goes like this:

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Presumed Guilty

I’m going to use the Bill Cosby scandal to illustrate my point, but in truth the misuse of this expression had been irritating me for years, long before the accusations against Cosby came to light. The expression is, “A person is innocent until proven guilty.” You hear it all the time, not infrequently by Cosby’s defenders, and it makes me cringe every time.

First of all, the expression actually states that a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty. They even get this wrong at the beginning of Cops. And what the presumption of innocence means is that when a person stands accused of a crime, generally in a court of law, the burden of proving guilt is on the accuser, rather than the accused having to prove himself innocent.

Let’s take a look at the famous O.J. Simpson trial. It was the job of the prosecution to prove that Simpson had committed the two murders. They failed to accomplish this, at least in the eyes of the jury. Now, assuming that Simpson did indeed kill those two people (and you and I have no way of knowing for sure) there’s no way he can be considered innocent. He may not have been convicted, but he most certainly is guilty of the crime.

A year or so ago I heard an interview with comedian Jerry Seinfeld, who stated that the three greatest stand-up comedians of all time are Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Bill Cosby. I recall this because they’re the same three that I would have chosen. Sometimes Cosby, who works clean and never presented a particularly hip persona, doesn’t get the appreciation he deserves, so it was nice to hear him get the recognition.  

Not every one of Bill Cosby’s accusers is saying he raped them. Some have simply come forward with an account of how Cosby crudely attempted to seduce them, and was rejected. However, if even one of the rape allegations is true, Cosby is a criminal. Again and again women have said that while with Cosby they mysteriously passed out and woke up naked, often with Cosby having sex with them, or with Cosby not there but with the feeling that they had had sex.

If Cosby did in fact rape these women but never stands trial, because of statute of limitations loopholes and/or secret payoffs, it is legally wrong and morally reprehensible to describe him as “innocent,” as the people who still attend his performances often do. If he raped those women he is guilty, even if he never steps inside of a courtroom. As with O.J. Simpson, we can never know the truth with absolute certainty, but as thinking adults we can look at the evidence and form our own opinions. And many people, myself included, now believe it’s at least possible for someone to be both one of the greatest comics in history and a serial rapist.

One thing that you can definitely count on, however. You will never hear me defend Cosby, or any accused person, by claiming he is “innocent until proven guilty.” It is simply an automatic, go-to defense for people who have no other evidence to support their argument, and besides, it’s not what the concept means. 

Monday, April 20, 2015

Guess Who #39

It’s not that tonight’s Mr. X is a hero of mine. In fact, most of his work was created before my time, if you can imagine such a thing. Still, there’s no denying that Mr. X was a powerhouse in the field of cinema in his day, and you’ve most certainly heard his name. And if, before taking this quiz, you come up a little short in your attempt to identify even a few of his accomplishments, that’s okay. You’ll certainly be able to do so after taking it.

Mr. X’s middle name was Marcellus.

Mr. X was born in 1906.

Mr. X was nominated for an Oscar ten times.

Mr. X began performing in Vaudeville at the age of three.

Mr. X was married five times.

Mr. X often cast his father in movies.

Mr. X often cast his daughter in movies.

Mr. X often cast Humphrey Bogart in movies.

Mr. X is the only person to direct both a parent and a child in Oscar-winning roles.

Mr. X was a licensed pilot.

Mr. X said, “If I ever do a movie that glorifies war, somebody shoot me.”

Mr. X was an amateur boxing champion.

Mr. X received an Oscar nomination in five consecutive decades.

Mr. X once had a pet monkey.

Mr. X was proclaimed the 13th greatest director of all time by Entertainment Weekly.

Mr. X appeared on a U.S. postage stamp in 2012.

Mr. X said, “I prefer to think that God is not dead, just drunk.”

Mr. X was born in Missouri and died in Rhode Island.

My, that certainly is a long list of clues up there. So tell me, who is Mr. X?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Talk Show: The Ultimate Prize

It was 1997 and I was enjoying a new game show called Win Ben Stein’s Money. It was fun to try to answer the questions and add to my vast storehouse of useless information, of course, but more and more I found myself tuning in to watch Stein’s co-host on the show. He was a bit chubby, poorly dressed and had a quick, smart-ass wit that made the show a lot of fun. His name, of course, was Jimmy Kimmel.

Kimmel remained on Money for three years, but eventually left to co-produce and co-host the hilariously creative The Man Show. I still remember thinking that it was much too soon for Kimmel to leave this show when he did just that, in 2003. The show was at its creative peak and had a lot of mileage left. Kimmel left because the Holy Grail of television had been laid down before him: he was offered his own talk show.

Short of a break-out movie career, the ultimate achievement for successful television funnymen (and funnywomen) seems to be sitting behind the desk of their very own talk show. Over and over we seem to lose uniquely entertaining programs, and their stars, to the apparently irresistible lure of the talk show. You would think the formula would have worn out by now, with the host feigning fascination with a seemingly endless parade of celebrities pretending they are not there to hawk their latest movie, book or TV show. It has been, after all, fifty-three years since Carson began his celebrated late-night reign.

But no, it seems that few can resist that seat behind the desk. We lost The Man Show because of it.  Some might recall that before she had her talk show, Chelsea Handler hosted a sketch comedy show on the E! network called The Chelsea Handler Show. It was funny, daring and something fresh. Ah, but it didn’t fit the formula. It lasted two years, after which Handler began to host Chelsea Lately, which was, and let’s say it together, a talk show.

And that brings us to my main point, the most crushing blow of all. I still remember that he was a little shaky during the first weeks of his new fake news show. He stumbled over lines and at times I felt just a bit embarrassed for him. Back then it would have been nearly impossible to imagine that Stephen Colbert would host his Colbert Report for the next decade, amassing a catalogue of 1,447 shows. Television is much like any art form. There is some real crap at the bottom, a huge mass of mediocrity in the middle and a slim layer of brilliance floating on top. For ten seasons The Colbert Report, without a doubt, was nothing short of brilliant.

And then he was tapped to replace the retiring David Letterman. Yes, Colbert was leaving the Report to do…a talk show. I suppose it’s really not a mystery why he, or any performer, would make this choice. Apparently a late-night talk show, especially on one of the major networks, is a huge step up the showbiz ladder, and I assume it is, as such, accompanied by the appropriate rewards, monetary and otherwise.

There might be sharper minds and quicker wits on television than Stephen Colbert, but none come to mind. And no doubt he will find even greater late-night success when he begins his new gig. The price he’ll have to pay, however, is the softening up of that razor sharpness. He’ll have to appeal to a wider audience and therefore use broader humor. He’ll probably even have to, dare I say it, “dumb it down” for his new audience. He’ll have to play it safe. Oh, he’ll be fun to watch, no doubt. And it will be easier, too, for us viewers. You know, without all that thinking to get in the way of the laughs.
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