TV posts

Tuesday September 27, 2022

Dreaming of Conan O'Brien

I was laying on my stomach on a lounge chair in an area outside of a building where there was a long row of chairs and lounge chairs. A group of us were there, and Conan O'Brien came over, and I sensed this was his territory and I was in his spot. But I didn't budge. Eventually, and not rudely, he told me to get out of his chair. “Really?” I said. “You think this is yours?” I was kind of joking and kind of not—it seemed a dick move on his part but I didn't really care about the chair. The group of us were watching TV, most of us sitting, Conan standing, and as he did so he blocked the sun. “That's why we need a tall person standing there,” I said. “So the sun isn't shining on the TV and we can see it better.” It was supposed to be a joke but Conan got huffy and began to go inside. “Conan...” I began. “Conan...” And just as I was telling him I was joking and he could have his seat, he turned on me angrily and said I was no longer invited to this place. Then he left. That was it, I was banned. The others sort of awkwardly moved away from me, and some part of me shrugged, oh well, but another part thought, well, that's a shame.

This was amid several dreams about the logistics of moving from different rooms/apartments in the last few days of a long trip, with the suitcase nearly empty of clean clothes. One of the rooms was in an old girlfriend's basement, and one of our group, an adult who seemed to know more about the world, was leaving her a tip ($50 or $100, I couldn't tell) paperclipped to a postcard on a small table. “Are we supposed to do that?” I asked. “Of course,” he said. I felt guilty over my breach of etiquette. How did I not know this?

Posted at 07:33 AM on Tuesday September 27, 2022 in category TV   |   Permalink  

Tuesday September 13, 2022

Emmys Need an Enema

I watched most of the Emmys last night and tweeted some of my disappointment with the show. Not with the winners—although my vote goes to “Barry” for comedy, and my vote (and my heart) goes to Rhea Seehorn for “Better Call Saul”—but more with the show's presentation. Didn't much engagement from those tweets, but today I read Michael Schulman's piece in The New Yorker, “Cringe-Watching the 2022 Emmys” and felt seen. Example:

Despite celebrating the craft of television, the ceremony was ineptly written and paced. Thompson's comedy interludes had a wocka-wocka desperation about them, and the formerly low-key job of announcer went to the comedian Sam Jay, who stole focus with contrived introductions of the presenters. (“You've seen them on 'Black Bird,' but they've never been mentioned on Black Twitter. . . .”) For whatever reason, not all the presenters could be trusted to read off the nominees, which were sometimes announced before the presenters walked onstage, and the “In Memoriam” sequence was shot from angles that made it difficult to see the names of some of the departed. In the d.j. booth—because somehow having a celebrity d.j. has become mandatory at awards shows—was a fellow called Zedd, whose idea of wit was bringing up “Succession” 's Jesse Armstrong to “Shake Your Booty.” The play-off music, just as subtly, included “Time to Say Goodbye,” and kept things moving at a brutal clip. Instead of letting the winners build up to real emotion, the broadcast shooed them off to make time for the stars of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” (tastelessly introduced as “two cops no one wants to see defunded”) to go on a chase for a stolen Emmy.

Agree on all of it. I don't need the house-party vibe. I don't need extra bits. I like comedy, I like songs, but mostly just celebrate the craft. Celebrate the people. That's why we're there. We like you, we really like you. So get on with it.

And next year, give a fucking statuetee to Rhea Seehorn. For God's sake.

Posted at 03:51 PM on Tuesday September 13, 2022 in category TV   |   Permalink  

Saturday August 06, 2022

Nichelle Nichols (1932-2022)

Here’s a story about the influence of Nichelle Nichols’ Lt. Uhura character.

After the first season of “Star Trek,” she was thinking of quitting because there often wasn’t much to the role beyond “Hailing frequencies open, Captain.” Apparently she’d already submitted her resignation to creator Gene Roddenberry, who told her to think it over. During that thinking-it-over period, she attended a NAACP fundraiser, where she was told someone wanted to meet her:

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Turns out he was a fan. “Star Trek” was one of the few shows he and Coretta let the kids watch. Per Nichols’ New York Times obit

“He said, ‘We admire you greatly, you know,’” Ms. Nichols said, and she thanked him and told him that she was about to leave the show. “He said, ‘You cannot. You cannot.’”

Dr. King told her that her role as a dignified, authoritative figure in a popular show was too important to the cause of civil rights for her to forgo. As Ms. Nichols recalled it, he said, “For the first time, we will be seen on television the way we should be seen every day.”

 On Monday morning, she returned to Roddenberry’s office and told him what had happened.

 “And I said, ‘If you still want me to stay, I’ll stay. I have to.’”

Such was her influence that when Roddenberry rebooted the series two decades later with Picard, Riker, et al., a major movie star said she wanted in. That’s why Whoopi Goldberg’s Guinan began showing up in the second season. “Nichelle was the first Black person I’d ever seen who made it to the future … the one beacon that said, ‘Yes, we’ll be there,’” Goldberg said this week, in tribute.

Lt. Uhura was the main woman on the show, wasn’t she? I’d never really thought about that before. Roddenberry’s original conception was even more progressive, with a female second-in-command (Majel Barrett) in the pilot episode “The Cage,” but of course the network had notes. Basically: lose the woman and the guy with the ears. Roddenberry had to pick his battles and went with Spock. Of the other recurring female characters, Yeoman Rand was just first season, Nurse Chapel (Barrett again) only began with the second season, and both were kind of lovelorn—the former making eyes at Kirk, the latter making plomeek soup for Spock. Lt. Uhura had a job.

What else did we know about Uhura? She liked to sing. She could speak Swahili. She liked small furry things. Sometimes she was frightened. I remember reading, decades ago, fan supposition that she had a thing for Kirk, or Kirk for her, since in the episode “Plato’s Stepchildren,” the Platonians chose Chapel for Spock, knowing their history, but why Uhura for Kirk unless something was there? Sure. Or maybe because there was nothing there? “Trek” fans have long claimed this was the first interracial kiss on television, though there’s plenty of evidence of predecessors, but I’m pretty sure it was the first interracial kiss between TV series regulars. Anyway there’s a better argument that it was Sulu, rather than Kirk, who had a thing for Uhura. Cf., “Fair maiden” in “Naked Time” and rapacious ways in “Mirror Mirror.”

An even better argument: We all had a thing for her. I sure did. I had a poster of Lt. Uhura on my wall as a kid. This was in the mid-1970s when I watched “Star Trek” on reruns at 6 PM on Channel 11 (MetroMedia Television), at first haphazardly, then regularly, and then I fell hard: memorizing titles, their production order, their air dates. And up Uhura went, next to Cheryl Ladd. Even with that, it wasn’t until I was an adult and saw some TOS episodes again that I realized how absolutely freaking gorgeous she was. Just stunning. I look at photos today and I’m still stunned.

Shame I didn’t see her in more stuff, but onscreen roles were skimpy back then even for stunning Black women. She was hired by Duke Ellington as a dancer for his orchestra in the 1950s, and per IMDb, she was an uncredited dancer in the 1958 Otto Preminger “Porgy and Bess” movie. Pre-“Trek,” she played a mother preparing to send her kids to a newly integrated school in a 1964 TV movie, and was a guest star on an episode of Gene Roddenberry’s “The Lieutenant” TV series that went unaired because it was too controversial (read: mildly progressive). Mostly she was in the background: uncredited as a nurse on “Peyton Place,” uncredited in a 1966 Ann-Margret movie, a dice player in a 1966 James Garner movie. She also played “Ruana” in two episodes of the 1966 “Tarzan” TV series. Dare we? Probably not. Then she was in space. Then she was in the future.

After “Trek” there’s not much, either. She kept returning to Uhura: in the animated series, in the movies. She has 69 credits on IMDb and 16 of them are for Uhura, who finally got a first name, Nyota, in, I guess, “Star Trek VI”? Tim would know. Uhura also led to Nichols’ work with NASA, beginning in 1977, to help recruit women and people of color. The role she was ready to shed was the one she never did, and it made all the difference. 

Posted at 09:36 AM on Saturday August 06, 2022 in category TV   |   Permalink  

Wednesday May 18, 2022

The Book on The Book of Boba Fett

I was never a huge Boba Fett fan. I was there at the beginning, original “Star Wars” with lines around the block and are you a Luke or Han guy; and then “Empire” dropped and suddenly dudes were talking Boba Fett. Boba who? You mean the guy that turned in Han? You're not supposed to like him! But many of my contemporaries did. They thought he was cool. And even though he went into the mouth of the desert-monster thingy in “Return of the Jedi,” the legend grew. And eventually we learned—I guess in the prequels or one of the cartoon shows I never watched—that Boba was the model for the stormtroopers. They're all clones of him. Or his father? Or something? And he's a clone of his father, too? Another example of how, in trying to connect his universe, George Lucas destroys it.

Long way of saying I didn't jump right on Disney's latest “Star Wars” series, “The Book of Boba Fett,” even though I liked “The Mandalorian” enough. But this spring I finally got around to it. I'd heard it had Luke in it. The return of Luke! Looking like 1983 Mark Hamill! With scenes and everything! I was always a Luke guy. How could I miss that?

And? 

And I liked the Boba Fett stuff.

I liked that they didn't explain it. They just take us to Tatooine, and the now darkened, empty halls of Jaba the Hutt's lair, and then outside into the desert, and eventually down into the mouth of that desert-monster thingy, the sarlacc, with Boba Fett in its maw, or stomach, or wherever he is. And how he blasts his way out. And how the Jawas arrive and strip the Mandalorian armor from the unconscious Boba Fett. Then a Tusken tribe takes his body. I liked seeing all these creatures again. I assumed Boba would eventually turn the tables on the Tuskens, the Sand People, who make him a kind of slave. Instead, he proves his worth, adapts, and is welcomed into the tribe. He likes the Tuskens. He basically becomes the T.E. Lawrence of Tatooine.

All of this is intercut with later scenes where Boba is the crime lord of Mos Espa, with Fennec Shand (Wen Ming-Na) by his side. (Aside: Wen is nearly 60 years old and hot as all get-out.)

So I liked how it opened. But when it shifts to pick up on the Mandalorian's story in episode 5, and when in ep. 6 we get my man Luke and baby Yoda, now named Grogu, I was hugely disappointed. I'd somehow forgotten that, yes, during the prequels they'd made the Jedi boring. They made them assholes. They created a kind of Buddhist ascetism, which the Jedi-in-training has to follow whether he's a twentysomething Luke or a baby Yoda. We see Luke training baby Yoda and it's kind of painful to watch. The Mandalorian shows up, essentially Grogu's dad, with a present for him, chain mail, and isn't even allowed to see him. And Luke presents Grogu with a choice: the chain mail and life with Mando, or Yoda's lightsabre and life as a Jedi. “But you may choose only one,” he says. For life. He says this to a baby.

So stupid. Luke's path to the Jedi-hood was way more haphazard: Yeah, there's this thing called the Force, here's how you try to access it, not bad, hey, the Force is strong with this one, OK, why don't you go to Dagobah and learn from this dude Yoda? And by the time he chose the path he had nothing to lose: no parents, no aunt/uncle, no Ben. He had nothing to give up. And now he's asking Grogu—a baby—to give up his dad.

Anyway, Grogu chooses Mando, and good for him. Maybe that'll begin to set this galaxy on the right path. Lord knows the Jedi haven't helped much. One wonders, in fact, if the problem with this galaxy isn't just the bad guys, the Empire, but the good guys, too, and their ascetic rites. Both sides are just different kinds of assholes: one takes, one denies. Two sides of the same fucking coin.

My other takeaway from “The Book of Boba Fett” was what a potpourri of film history it was. “Lawrence of Arabia” was just the start. We also got the kids from “Quadrophenia,” an alien cowboy looking like Lee Van Cleef from the Leone-Eastwood movies, and King Kong. I liked the alien cowboy. I thought the “Quadrophenia” stuff a bit silly. 

But I think it went from homage to derivative in the final episode when it lifted lines directly from the early “Godfather” movies. As the other crime families align with the Pyke Syndicate, betraying Boba Fett, Mando says, “It was the smart move,” echoing Michael's line about Tessio's betrayal. Then, trapped, Boba sends Mok Shaiz's Majordomo (an excellent David Pasquesi) to negotiate the terms of his surrender, which turn out to be “Nothing,” echoing Michael's line from “II” about what he's willing to offer the scumbag U.S. Senator. I doubt the makers of “Boba Fett” thought they were scamming anyone—that we wouldn't notice. I'm sure they thought it was homage. But it still felt wrong. The way to create cool lines is not to lift the cool lines of better films. You gotta write them.

Posted at 10:47 AM on Wednesday May 18, 2022 in category TV   |   Permalink  

Saturday April 16, 2022

Gilbert Gottfried (1955-2022)

Sometimes all it takes is a moment that just lands.

In the mid-80s I was watching “David Letterman” and Gilbert Gottfried came on to do standup. Had I seen him before? Had someone disparaged him before? He had a loud rasping voice and was perpetually squinting. His eyes were all but shut and I kind of wanted to do the same with mine, because I was a little embarrassed for him. What laughs he was getting were awkward. Because he was awkward. I wasn't laughing, either. I think I kept thinking, “When does he stop this bit and go into his regular act? Oh, this is his regular act?” But I kept watching. And at one point (27:20 here) he segued from an Elephant Man joke into this:

“And I said there you go putting everything into your looks! You think everything is your looks! It's not—women do not care about a man's looks! If you read any sex quiz, they care about a personality and a sense of humor! Women love a sense of humor. Women would trample over Tom Selleck to get to Buddy Hacket!”

And I lost it. I laughed so hard. And from that moment on, whenever anyone disparaged him, I defended him. That was all it took. I bonded with him on that. And amazingly, the thing I thought was the awkward bit—that loud, rasping, annoying voice—lasted his entire career. He played it for all it was worth. He parlayed it. Iago in “Aladdin.” Gilbert Gottfried reads “50 Shades of Grey.” When John Oliver realized early in the Trump administration that though Jared Kushner was everywhere, we never heard him speak, who did he tap to be Kushner's voice?

We've lost so many standups in such a short time: Norm Macdonald, Bob Saget, Louie Anderson. All in their 60s. Is there something about standup that shortens your life? It seems to be a brotherhood, too. Which you totally get. It's a tough life, I would imagine, and most people aren't funny, and you need to hang around the people who are. I envy that brotherhood. It would be a great group to hang around. 

After the news broke, my friend Josh told a story on Twitter about interviewing Gottfried for an article in Playboy magazine, and how he was never “Gilbert Gottfried” in those conversatons. He was kind and quiet; he always apologized for bothering him. A few months later, he called while Josh was driving to ask when the article was coming out; Josh had to admit that the piece had been killed for various reasons. “Long silence then he went full Gilbert on me. 'Oh my god' he said in that voice, 'what is it like to have your work rejected by a porno magazine?' He then said 'Have you thought about selling it to Leg Show? How about Barely 18....' He said he might know someone at Nugget and various other skin mags. I nearly drove off the road I was laughing so hard.” 

Posted at 07:37 AM on Saturday April 16, 2022 in category TV   |   Permalink  

Tuesday December 14, 2021

All the Bells Say: On John Berryman and the Season 3 Finale of 'Succession'

Berryman in the backyard. 

Sunday night, during the season 3 finale of HBO's “Succession,” I asked Patricia if she knew where the title of the episode, “All the Bells Say,” came from. She did not, and I forgot to look it up, but this morning, reading a synopsis in The New York Times, she told me it was from one of John Berryman's Dream Songs. She told me this not only because I'd asked but because she knew I knew the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. He and my father were friends from the time Dad interviewed him for a feature profile in the Minneapolis Tribune in 1965 until Berryman's death by suicide in January 1972 at age 57. He came over to our house in South Minneapolis. He had a nice daughter named Martha. He had a long beard. We called him Santa Claus.

He actually wrote one of the Dream Songs for my father, number 325, the one that begins “Control it now, it can't do any good,” about the sudden death of Dad's friend Pat McCarty, which includes the line, “Our dead frisk us, & later they get better at it.” It ends this way:

Henry made lists of his surviving friends
& of the vanished on their uncanny errands
and took a deep breath.

The older I get, the more these lines mean to me.

So not only did I know the poet of the lines referenced in the episode title, I knew the poem, Dream Song 29, intimately. In college, or afterwords, I'd even titled a short story “There Came a Thing So Heavy,” truncating a few of the first lines. The relevant line for the episode is “All the bells say: too late.” I have to admit, I don't remember that one at all, but it's another great line, a Never send to ask for whom the bell tolls kind of line.

It fits the episode perfectly. The Roy children, Kendall, Roman and Shiv, finally stop fighting for once and band together to stop their divide-and-conquer father, this universe's Rupert Murdoch, from selling a controlling interest in the company to a tech dick played by Alexander Skarsgard. But on the way to the battle—and please, accept this SPOILER ALERT for anyone who wants to see the episode fresh—as they're rallying the troops, the daughter, Shiv, calls her husband, Tom, to let him know what's about to go down. Even as it was happening, I was like, “Oh, bad move.” And it was. Tom betrays them, the patriarch pivots, and the kids arrive, as both he and the bells say, too late. And there goes their legacy. 

I always liked Dream Song 29 because of the way it begins:

There sat down, once, a thing on Henry's heart
So heavy, if he had a hundred years
& more, & weeping, sleeping, in all them time
Henry could not make good. 

We're whole and then we're not. I think everyone feels this at some point in their lives. How did I get here? Wasn't it so much better over there? Before I knew? It's why the Eden myth resonates so much.

The final stanza of the poem speaks to the episode, too. In season 1, Kendall, played by Jeremy Strong—about whom The New Yorker recently published a fantastic profile—causes the death of a waiter at his sister's wedding in England. It's Chappaquiddick-like: a car goes into the drink, only one gets out. But it's levened a bit because Kendall was in pursuit of drugs rather than sex, and we see him trying to save the dude. But then he flees the scene. And it's been eating at him ever since. Last night, he finally tells his siblings of his crime. He sits on a dusty alley in Italy and cries and tells them how he killed a guy; and they're suddenly put in the awkward position of bucking him up. And that's what binds them together enough to try to take on their father. 

This is the final stanza of Dream Song 29:

But never did Henry, as he thought he did,
end anyone and hacks her body up
and hide the pieces, where they may be found.
He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody's missing.
Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
Nobody is ever missing.

The episode was written by Jamie Carragher and series creator Jesse Armstrong. There's a lot of smart people working on “Succession.”

Posted at 08:38 AM on Tuesday December 14, 2021 in category TV   |   Permalink  

Saturday December 11, 2021

Michael Nesmith (1942-2021)

“It was definitely Nesmith's band,” Micky Dolenz told Rolling Stone. “He was the bandleader the whole time.” 

He had the driest sense of humor among the Monkees, a faux-Beatles band created by Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider for a 1966 NBC sitcom to recreate the mood of “A Hard Day's Night” and “Help!,” so of course he was my favorite. Davy got the girls, Micky had a vague wildman quality, Peter was goofy, sweet and dumb, and Mike kind of watched it all from under his stocking cap with a nonchalant face and tossed in dry comments. He seemed to know the world was stacked against us so he would just comment on it as he went along. He was a critic, basically. A kindred spirit. He was in on the joke.

They were disparaged as “The Prefab Four,” four dudes who didn't even play their own instruments on their first record, but a few things to remember. They had good backing musicians, including Glen Campbell, and good songwriters, including Neil Diamond. And Mike Nesmith. He wrote a number of their songs, including “Mary Mary,” “Papa Gene's Blues,” and “Different Drum” which became a huge hit for Linda Ronstadt in 1967, and he was the leader in fighting for some semblance of control over music director Don Kirshner. It's good to remember, too, how hugely popular they were. Their first single, “Last Train to Clarksville,” was the fourth biggest song of 1966, according to Billboard magazine. The next year, the summer of love, they had four songs in the yearly hot 100: “I'm a Believer” (No. 5), “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” (No. 60), “Pleasant Valley Sunday” (74) and “Daydream Believer” (94). The Beatles had two: “All You Need Is Love” and “Penny Lane” (30 and 55).

Finally, the show was good. I mean, I haven't seen it in 30 years, but I remember when it went into reruns in the late 1970s, just being kind of astonished at how funny it was. It even won the Emmy in 1967 for outstanding comedy series, beating out “Bewitched,” “Hogan's Heroes,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” and “Get Smart!” 

Post-Monkees, Nesmith went back to college while starting his own country rock band, First National Band. (You can hear the country influences in “Papa Gene's Blues” and “Different Drum.”) They had nominal success, and when they broke up, with his usual dry sense of humor, he named his new one Second National Band. He became a successful music producer as well as an early innovator in directing music videos. He had a show in the mid-80s called “Telelvison Parts” and recognized talent. Guests included up-and-comers Whoopi Goldberg, Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld and Garry Shandling. A regular bit was “Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey,” which later appeared on SNL. Nesmith was also the executive producer of movies, including “Repo Man” and “Tapeheads.” He wrote a novel in the '90s. He seemed to do a bit everything.

He remained friends with the other Monkees, particularly Mickey Dolenz, the last surviving member, who has a nice eulogy for Nesmith in Rolling Stone. He says that even during the crazy height of their success, Nesmith tended to be a bit of a loner. “He wasn't a big social bumblebee. He was quiet, sardonic, extremely bright, very witty.” All that came through.

Posted at 01:38 PM on Saturday December 11, 2021 in category TV   |   Permalink  

Sunday October 24, 2021

Peter Scolari (1955-2021)

I loved “Bosom Buddies” when it first aired in 1980-81. I kept telling people, “You gotta watch this show. Something about the two leads—they have such great chemistry.” I added: “I think the shorter one is going places.”

And he did, just not to the level of the other guy, Tom Hanks. But then, who has?

Peter Scolari kept acting but I kept missing him. I didn't watch “Newhart,” for which he was nominated best supporting actor three times. I did see him in the Tom Hanks-directed “That Thing You Do!” in 1996. And I saw him regularly on “Girls,” playing Hannah's dad with impeccable, fumbling, comedic timing. Almost Bob Newhart-esque timing. He won an Emmy for that. It was fun seeing him regularly again.

On “Bosom Buddies,” I identified. He was short, cute, and wanted to be a writer. I remember they did an episode where it became clear that it's almost impossible to make a living and pursue your passion. The ending cut to Kip's empty canvas and Henry's cold typewriter. The show was trying to warn me of the future. 

Scolari died this week of cancer, age 66. Here's his New York Times obit. Godspeed, Henry. 

Posted at 02:06 PM on Sunday October 24, 2021 in category TV   |   Permalink  

Sunday September 19, 2021

The Death of Omar and Why the Battle for BLM

“It was more a comment of how cheap life was and that [Omar] could be got. He had turned his back on someone in the market. He was buying a pack of smokes. He was depleted at that point, too. We didn't want to give him a big gun fight or anything like that—or even what Stringer got, which is the satisfaction of Omar and Brother Mouzone hunting him down. We just didn't want to do that with him. If you recall in that episode, after his death, you cut to the newsroom, and the paper comes across somebody's desk, and they look at it and they throw it in the basket. Outside of his world, he's nothing to anybody. In what we think of as the proper society, and even in the newsroom, he's nothing. 'Throw him in the basket. Put him with all the other guys.' It's like in DC, in The Washington Post, they change the name of it quite frequently—it's been called 'Around the Region' and 'Crime,' but buried in the Metro section are the murders of blacks in the city, and they get a paragraph or maybe two paragraphs, if they're lucky. But if a white person is killed on the other side of town, it makes the front page. What that does is, subconsciously, it puts in the mind of people reading the newspaper, especially young people, that black lives don't in fact matter.”

-- George Pelecanos, Writer/producer on “The Wire,” in the book “All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire,” an oral history by Jonathan Abrams

Posted at 08:26 AM on Sunday September 19, 2021 in category TV   |   Permalink  

Saturday September 18, 2021

Michael K. Williams (1966-2021)

They gave him Malcolm X's original surname, Little, and set him out on an eight-episode arc in the first season of a show about the tragedy of an American city, Baltimore, called “The Wire.” But as with Malcolm, there was nothing little about Omar. He got big, and they kept him on, and they ended that first season with him robbing drug dealers again with his shotgun and a smile. He was everyone's favorite character—even the president of the United States. He was Robin Hood, beloved, feared, arriving out of nowhere in trenchcoat and shotgun, whistling “The Farmer in the Dell.” People scattered but they watched. The kids imitated him. We loved him. He was personable. And the man had a code. He never put no gun on no citizen. The best gangsters have codes. Most of Cagney's gangsters seemed better men than his private citizens, who stayed within the law, within the boundaries, and thus didn't need a personal code to orient themselves. They didn't have the honor the gangsters did.

To the suits, initially, he seemed irrelevant. Add Omar to the list of great movies, TV shows, characters that excecutives wanted to quash. From Jonathan Abrams' oral history, “All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire”:

Early on, HBO executives asked David Simon to cut a seemingly pointless scene featuring a shadowy figure named Omar, who robbed drug dealers. His presence did not seem relevant to them in moving the story along. Simon asked them to wait.

Then they wanted nothing but Omar. If it had been a network show in the '70s, rather than an '00s HBO show, he would've gotten a spinoff (“The Omar Show”; “The Chronicles of Omar”; “Indeed”), but there was no way creator David Simon was going to go there. In the same book, Simon likens the audience to a child. “If you ask the audience what they want, they'll want dessert. They'll say they want ice cream. They'll want cake. ... 'You like Omar?' 'Yeah, I love Omar. Give me more of Omar.' No, I want to tell you a story, and the characters are going to do what they're supposed to do in the story, and that's the job of the writer.” Which is why Omar died the way he did, ingloriously, in the fifth and final season, just some kid at a market when his back was turned, and in the larger world, the whiter world, no one knew or cared. In our world, the opposite: people howled their protests but to deaf ears. Hell, maybe to pleased ears. But it was the right way to send him out.

After Michael K. Williams' death last week at age 54, people kept posting favorite scenes or mentioning favorite lines: Come at the king, best not miss, etc. I immediately thought of him sparring with Avon Barksdale's attorney, Levy, from the witness stand, leaning back, playing all the while with the odd tie the prosecution made him wear, and getting the best of him: “I got the gun, you got the briefcase. It's all in the game, though, right?” I thought of his interactions with Bunk. I saw Williams in a lot, “Boardwalk Empire,” “The Night Of,” “Lovecraft Country,” and it's a testament to his acting that nothing hit as hard as Omar. These others were different roles, different characters, and he played them as what they were. Omar's playfulness wasn't there because they weren't Omar. It would've been so easy to go back to that, to what made him a star, but Williams had a code, too. He created one of the most indelible characters in television history and moved on. Rest in peace.

Posted at 07:36 AM on Saturday September 18, 2021 in category TV   |   Permalink  

Friday September 17, 2021

Norm Macdonald (1959-2021)

One of the great talk show guests, saving us all from boredom and bullshit.

On Tuesday my friend Adam posted a video of Norm Macdonald's final standup on the Letterman show—the last standup anyone did on Letterman—and talked about how great it was and how much it meant to him. I smiled. So Adam. I liked it and moved on. I didn't know why he had posted it. I didn't know it was the first of many eulogies I would see that day for Norm Macdonald, who died that day, age 61, after a very non-public 10-year battle with cancer. I spent much of the day watching those videos. I mourned the death of Norm Macdonald by laughing a lot.

I'd actually done a deep YouTube dive into Norm about a month or two ago. It might've begun with that 1997 Conan show where he and Conan spar over Courtney Thorne-Smith, and Norm triumphs beautifully. Although that's not quit it, is it? They admit to crushes—who didn't have one on Courtney Thorne-Smith in 1997?—but while Conan does his usual “woe is me” bit, Norm keeps hijacking the conversation by disparaging the star of Courtney's new movie, Carrot Top. I don't think many comedians had much respect for Carrot Top. Conan didn't seem to, either. But he's the host, and he's the one with the Courtney crush, and when he asks if there's a scene in the movie where she and him embrace, she plays along, talking it up, saying “Oh yeah, lots of making out. Nothing but making out. It's like '9 1/2 Weeks' but Carrot Top.” To which Norm butts in: “Is it called '9 1/2 Seconds'?” And then the brilliance for me: While everyone is laughing, and people applauding, he says directly what was implied. There's a YouTube video that's just called “Norm Macdonald Explains the Joke” and this is an example of that. He says: “Like he's premature ejaculating.” Man, I love that. That's so my temperature.

And it continues. That's the great thing. Conan asks her what the movie will be called and again Norm butts in with his own idea for a Carrot Top movie title: “Box Office Poison.” At this point, semi-laughing, Courtney objects—it's her movie, too!—and Conan defends her, and eventually she says the title: “Chairman of the Board.” To which Conan says to Norm: “Do something with that, you freak.” And he does. He says “I bet the 'board' is spelled B-O-R-E-D,” and Conan completely loses it. It's one of the many examples of why Norm was considered one of the great talk show guests. Not for nothing, he was right, too: the reviews for “Chairman of the Board” were scathing, and the movie bombed. It's currently got a 2.3 rating on IMDb.

I often thought of Norm as my guy—like Rich Hall in the '80s, another standup who feels like he should've been bigger. A lot of Norm's humor was dry, witty and esoteric but told in an everyman's voice—full of “you know”s and “there”s. Here's Jason Zinoman in The New York Times

My favorite Norm Macdonald joke — and trust me, there's serious competition — is one he told as anchor of Weekend Update on “Saturday Night Live” in the late 1990s. Papers in front of him, he reported with a cheer: “Yippie! Jerry Rubin died this week.” Looking down, he apologized for his mistake and tried again: “That should read: 'Yippie Jerry Rubin died this week.'”

He was famously/infamously fired from “Saturday Night Live” because the head of NBC was an O.J. Simpson fan and Norm made too many O.J. jokes as host of “Weekend Update.” (My favorite: “In a brilliant move during closing arguments, Simpson attorney Johnnie Cochran put on the knit cap prosecutors say O.J. wore the night he committed the murders. Although O.J. may have hurt his case when he suddenly blurted out 'Hey, hey, easy with that, that's my lucky stabbing hat!'”) But in a 2011 interview with Marc Maron on the WTF Podcast, he says the problem was more internal than that. SNL honcho Lorne Michaels, a fellow Canadian, gave orders in an elliptical manner that Norm didn't get. He says he needed Lorne to say specifically what he wanted, Lorne didn't do that, Norm got fired. When he returned to host 18 months later, in his opening monlogue, he shit all over the show with a smile on his face.

It's interesting. In the podcast he seems timid, all but talking into his sleeve; Maron has to keep drawing him out. But a lot of his standup was fearless. I don't think there's anything more fearless than showing up for one of those roasts where everyone is supposed to be vicious with one another and doing antiquated, tepid one-liners. But that's what he did. And he did it because he didn't like the bullshit of the roast. He was told he had to be vicious and he was like, “Oh, I'll do the opposite.” Always a good instinct. But even knowing it going in, I can't watch that routine. It's too painful.

Economiums have been pouring in: Seth Meyers, Bob Saget, Howard Stern. The Hollywood Reporter collected a bunch.

Though he didn't announce he had cancer, a lot of his comedy over the last 10 years dealt with the topic—or the way we deal with the topic. The language we use: “Losing” a battle with cancer, for example. “I'm not a doctor,” Norm said, “but I'm pretty sure if you die, the cancer dies with you. To me, that's a draw.” 

Posted at 06:40 AM on Friday September 17, 2021 in category TV   |   Permalink  

Saturday June 19, 2021

Hader Does Conan '15

This made me happy the other night: Hader does Conan. From 2015.

Posted at 09:49 AM on Saturday June 19, 2021 in category TV   |   Permalink  

Thursday December 31, 2020

Dawn Wells (1938-2020)

Our dreamgirl next door. 

It was the great question of the second half of the 20th century. It's also a question with no wrong answer. You either went with a tall, beautiful, red-haired seductress or a supercute girl next door with a smile that brightens the room and legs to die for who somehow makes coconut cream pies on a deserted island. But if we're honest about it, the proper response is this: “They're both out of our league.” 

This, however, is the answer I've tended to give: “The time Mary Ann thought she was Ginger.”

That episode, “The Second Ginger Grant” (original airdate March 6, 1967, the seventh-to-last episode of “Gilligan's Island,” thank you, IMDb), knocked me for a loop when I was a kid. And for years afterward. Probably to this day. And I don't think it's because I wanted the girl next door to act like the seductress—or maybe I did, and do—it's more the scene where Mary Ann wants to make out with Gilligan but he runs away. But then he's told, by either the Professor or the Skipper, that because they're worried about Mary Ann's pyschic state he should return. So he does. He plops his head into her lap and she plants a long one of him while the soundtrack makes that mwaa mwaa mwaa mwaa sound. I don't think I ever wanted to be someone as much I wanted to be Gilligan with his head in Dawn Wells' lap while she plants a long one on him and you hear mwaa mwaa mwaa mwaa

Dawn Wells, everyone's not-so-secret crush, the dreamgirl next door for several generations, died yesterday from complications with COVID.

My father went out with her. I know, I'm burying the lede. in 1979, Dawn came to Minneapolis as part of a touring company for Neil Simon's “Chapter Two,” and he did a feature on her for the Star-Tribune. He also asked if he could show her around town. Just the typical journalistic graciousness, you understand. Journalism 101 stuff, really. Dad did it with everybody.

I was a little fuzzy on the details, so I asked about it when I talked to him yesterday. He thinks he bought her lunch. He doesn't remember what sites he showed her. I cut to the chase. “Did you kiss her?” “Well, at the end, she gave me a kiss,” he said. “To thank me.” From the sound of it, it was not a romantic kiss. It wasn't mwaa mwaa. Even so, my father got to first base—or halfway there—with Mary Ann. Jealousy doesn't begin to describe it.

He might've done better if he'd given her a better lede:

Dawn Wells is an alumna of two of the most ridiculed phenomena in American culture—the “Miss America” paegent and “Gilligan's Island.” 

That's actually a pretty good open. And he was only beginning with the negative to accenctuate the positive: her starring role in “Chapter Two” and other theatrical productions; her artist-in-residence position at her alma mater—Stephens College in Columbia, Mo. The idea was: Dawn Wells isn't who you think she is. 

It's a good piece. I learned a lot. She was a fourth-generation Nevadan, her great-grandfather drove a stagecoach, and her father was an original stockholder in the Thunderbird Hotel in Vegas. She was an extra on the set of “The Misfits,” which was filming close to where she grew up. That was her first brush with show business. She finished her B.A. with a major in drama at the University of Washington, then became Miss Nevada. She flipped a coin whether to go to NYC or LA and LA won. After “Gilligan's Island,” she had trouble overcoming the Mary Ann image and went back to theater. She retained a warm feeling for the show and stayed in touch with most of the cast members, “particularly Natalie Schafer, who vacations with her at Wells' gulfside home near St. Petersberg, Fla.” The looks they must've gotten hanging at the beach.

The piece also mentions all of her investments: another home in Nashville, land in Vegas, three oil wells. These must've fallen through because in 2018 she announced she was broke and relied on a GoFundMe to pay medical expenses and back taxes. Articles mention “an unexpected accident” and “life-threatening surgery” but not why Medicare didn't cover it. She died in a nursing home in LA.

Dad also said she was what she seemed on the show: enthusiastic, sweet, lovely. Take us out, Leonard Cohen

Posted at 10:41 AM on Thursday December 31, 2020 in category TV   |   Permalink  

Sunday July 26, 2020

John Saxon (1935-2020)

This morning, before the news, if you'd asked me what I remembered John Saxon in, I would‘ve said a sci-fi TV movie from the 1970s in which he winds up in the future or something, in a land ruled by women, and his top is torn off as he’s auctioned off at the marketplace. But after the news, and after I looked at his credits, I realized the first big impression he made on me was in a “Six Million Dolar Man” episode called “Day of the Robot,” where he plays Steve Austin's old army buddy who gets kidnapped and replaced by a bionic robot. At one point, mid-battle, his “face” gets knocked off, revealing the machinery beneath. I know. But he made an impression. He was not necessarily imposing but the character/robot seemed imposing: stolid and blank-faced and forever pushing forward. It was an early look at what the “Terminator” movies might be. 

Turns out he was on almost everything I watched as a kid in the ‘70s: “Petrocellli,” “Kung Fu,” “Wonder Woman,” and in a different role in that two-part “Six Million Dollar Man”/“Bionic Woman” episode about Big Foot. I kept turning on the TV and there he was: slightly receding hairline, strong jaw, evil eyes. Did they ever cast him with Anthony Zerbe as brothers? They should have. Even now I get them mixed up. I was like, “Wasn’t Saxon on a ‘Star Trek’ episode?” As a Klingon? Except that's not even Zerbe. It's John Colicos. But all of them should‘ve been Klingons.

Saxon also played the awful, no-nonsense corporate CEO Hunt Sears in “The Electric Horseman,” and he had a small, consequential role in Bruce Lee’s big breakthrough, “Enter the Dragon,” but he's chiefly known, per IMDb and the honors pouring in this morning, for a movie series I never saw and don't have interest in seeing: the “Nightmae on Elm Street” movies. He went on to stuff I didn't care about: “Dynasty,” “Falcon Crest,” “Murder She Wrote.” Where did I last see him? “From Dusk Till Dawn” in ‘96? Maybe. But in truth, a few times a year, I saw him in my mind’s eye as a contemporary man in a future world run by women: “Planet of the Apes” but with women. Not sure why that stayed with me. 

Turns out it's called “Planet Earth” and this is IMDb's description: 

A man awakens from suspended animation and finds himself in the 22nd century, where he finds that women rule the world and that men are slaves called Dinks.

Dinks? That's a little on-the-nose, isn't it? I'm not sure if it felt anti-feminist to me then or just subsequently, but the odd thing is it's a project developed by the supposedly far-sighted Gene Roddenberry. He created it, wrote it, and gave it to longtime “Star Trek” director Marc Daniels (everything from “The Naked Time” to “Mirror, Mirror” to “Spock's Brain”) to direct. Plus the clothes look like if “Trek” had continued into the 1970s. I might have to revisit one day. 

Posted at 12:22 PM on Sunday July 26, 2020 in category TV   |   Permalink  

Wednesday July 01, 2020

Carl Reiner (1922-2020)

When I was growing up in Minneapolis in the 1970s, the non-music album we played the most was probably “2000 and THIRTEEN,” by Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, which my father always felt was funnier than the more famous “2000 Year Old Man.” I agree. I still think it's one of the funniest things I‘ve ever heard. This is from memory so forgive all the errors:

CARL: [Somehow mentions Paul Revere]

MEL: Anti-Semitic bastard!

CARL: What? Why, we have no record of —

MEL: Oh, he was scared of us. He was afraid. He was afraid we were moving into the neighborhood. I remember one night, he got on his horse, and he rode around yelling, “The Yiddish are coming! The Yiddish are coming!”

CARL: No, it was “The British are coming!”

[Pause]

MEL: Oy, my god!

CARL: You mean all this time...?

MEL: Oh, and I didn’t go to his funeral. ... I‘ll have to send his wife a note.

There are tributes and testimonials all over the internet and social media, of course. From Nick Kroll. From Al Franken. From Alec Berg, a “Seinfeld” writer. From Matthew Rosenberg, a comic book writer, who recounts his father’s love of “Your Show of Shows” with one sketch and one perpetual birthday dinner. Anyone who can get “Beef Straganoff” to trend on Twitter, instead of the latest Trumpian idiocies, is my friend for life. Paul Wadman simply posted a nonsense rhyme—Nog, Nog/McKellan bee bog—which I immediately recognized from “2000 and THIRTEEN” and translated. My friend Adam posted that the Reiner-directed “The Jerk” was “flat-out the funniest film ever made” and it made me recall all the bits from “The Jerk” Adam would do when we shared an office from 2005 to 2007. 

Reiner was mostly straight man to hilarious men, wasn't he? To Mel. To Sid Caesar. To Steve Martin. I never regularly watched his huge breakthrough, “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” but I did see most of the movies he directed in the late 1970s—and in the theater: “Oh, God,” “The One and Only,” and “The Jerk.” Yes, even “The One and Only,” since it starred Henry Winkler and I was Fonz-crazed at the time. Then I was Steve Martin-crazed. Though “Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid” and “The Man with Two Brains” might have been VHS but “All of Me” was definitely theater. In the autumn of his life Reiner did lesser summer movies: “Summer Rental,” “Summer School.” Apparently he was greatly disappointed in the box-office response to “Bert Rigby, You‘re a Fool,” his 1989 working-class, British, musical comedy. He thought the star, Robert Lindsay, was another Dick Van Dyke, but “working class” and “musical” and “British” didn’t take in the summer of Tim Burton's “Batman.” (What's with “Rigby,” by the way? It's also Martin's name in “Dead Men.” Anyone know?)

He kept going. He never stopped working. He appeared with Mel on Jerry Seinfeld's “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” He was nominated for an Emmy in his mid-90s for starring in and narrating “If You‘re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast.” He took potshots at Trump on Twitter. He became a toy in Pixar’s “Toy Story” world: Carl Reinerocerus. 

Baseball historian John Thorn posted this trading card from the “1953 Bowman TV and Radio Stars of NBC” set—a thing I never knew existed, but you can look it up:

He made it a long way from the garment district. You look at that long, full life, full of laughter, and think, “That's the way to do it.” 

Posted at 07:09 AM on Wednesday July 01, 2020 in category TV   |   Permalink  
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