Sunday, February 18, 2018

Spawn Silliness

My wife and I met 35 years ago this month, and if you want to know the secret to our long-lasting relationship, it's because we still have silly conversations, like this one, where we got off on a tangent about scary movies...

Wife: I don't know if it was "Rosemary's Baby" or "The Omen."
Me: But it was one of those with a kid that's the spawn of Satan?
Wife: Yeah.
Me: How come we never hear a pleasant story about the spawn of a Nobel laureate?
Wife: Because "spawn" is always used in a negative connotation.
Me: What about when salmon swim upstream to spawn?
Wife: Well, sure, "spawn" can be positive when it's a verb -- but as a noun, it's always negative.
Me: Okay, good to know.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

A Showrunner's Nightmare

Amazon announced this week that it is going forward with a fifth season of its show, "Transparent," but without two-time Emmy-winning star Jeffrey Tambor. He was accused of inappropriate workplace behavior with a co-star and a personal assistant, so he's being written out. This seems like an impossible task for showrunner Jill Soloway to pull off.

The parallel that's being cited is the Netflix series "House Of Cards," which will continue for another season without star Kevin Spacey, who had his own past come back to haunt him. But "House Of Cards" is a show that can pivot to spotlight Robin Wright's character, as well as elevate other supporting cast members, and bring in Diane Lane and Greg Kinnear in new roles that can take the stories in a different direction.

I don't know how you do that in a show like "Transparent," in which Tambor played the transgender Maura (formerly Mort) Pfefferman at the heart of every episode. Maybe Soloway should ask Christopher Plummer to play Maura next season.

George Costanza, Elaine Benes, and Cosmo Kramer were compelling enough characters, but there couldn't have been any more seasons of "Seinfeld" if Jerry left. They couldn't have kept making "Frasier" if Kelsey Grammer had been forced out. There's no "Scandal" without Kerry Washington, no "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" without Ellie Kemper, no "Better Call Saul" without Bob Odenkirk.

Sure, there are procedurals like "Law and Order" and "CSI" that changed their casts multiple times, but they survived because the stories were the star, not the lead actors. "The Office" stuck around for a while after Steve Carrell left, but that was an ensemble show in which his Michael Scott was not the nucleus of every plot. Yes, "Cheers" survived Shelley Long's departure halfway through, but could it have limped through even one more season without Ted Danson? No way.

If you want to know what a show looks like when you remove its central character, go back and look at what happened after Redd Foxx left "Sanford and Son" or when Cindy Williams departed "Laverne and Shirley" or the demise of "8 Simple Rules" after the death of John Ritter. The best example may be when CBS tried to keep some semblance of "M*A*S*H" alive without Alan Alda. The result was "After M*A*S*H," a sitcom starring some its former supporting cast that none of them remembers fondly today.

To put this in terms of one of Tambor's other famous roles, "The Larry Sanders Show" could certainly have proceeded without his Hank Kingsley, but without Garry Shandling as the title character? Hey now!!

Friday, February 16, 2018

Is Bill Clinton Saying #NotMe?

A couple of years ago, my wife and I became subscribers to the St. Louis Speakers Series, where we've had the pleasure of listening to such luminaries as John Cleese, Jeffrey Toobin, Rita Moreno, Ted Koppel, Jon Meacham, and two former prime ministers -- England's David Cameron and Israel's Ehud Barak. The only speaker who disappointed us was Jane Pauley, who gave a rambling presentation in which she told several stories from her career, most of which didn't have any payoff.

These events are held at Powell Symphony Hall and emceed by Patrick Murphy of KETC, the public television outlet here. He introduces the guest, who then speaks from a podium for about an hour. Then Murphy returns to ask questions that audience members have written down on yellow cards distributed with that night's program, collected about halfway through the presentation by ushers. He's pretty good about choosing relevant questions for each speaker, and with the queries all submitted in writing, we avoid the grandstanding that can occur when an audience member gets up to ask a question at a microphone in the aisle.

The next two speakers in the series are travel writer Rick Steves and former president Bill Clinton. Regarding the latter, I received an email from the Speakers Series yesterday that said:
President Clinton's office has requested that we submit subscriber questions to them in advance of the lecture. Thus, we ask to have all questions submitted in advance via email.
There's no explanation for this departure from normal procedure, but I can make an educated guess as to the reason: Clinton doesn't want any questions regarding sexual harassment.

Ever since the #MeToo movement exploded in the wake of charges of sexual assault and harassment against Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and others, the former president's name has come up repeatedly. Unfortunately, it is too often in the form of a political attack from Clinton-haters who want to re-litigate accusations against him because “the women must be believed.” Not surprisingly, those same right-wingers don't have a word to say about the women who have made claims about Trump, and none of them would be interested in re-opening the Clarence Thomas hearings because they now believe Anita Hill.

Still, there are legitimate questions to discuss about Clinton's past behavior, both in the White House and as governor of Arkansas. I'd like to hear what he has to say on the subject now that the environment is different and he and Hillary are out of power. I'm not expecting any revelations, but aside from his views on our current political situation, what issue could be more topical for him to discuss?

I don't blame the Speakers Series for bowing to his request. After all, it is in the business of making its guests look good, not holding their feet to the fire -- but if I'm right, then shame on Clinton for avoiding such questions in the first place.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Still Waiting For My Flying Car

I've been talking about the possibility of flying cars for a long time. My fascination with them started as a boy watching George Jetson going to work in one. I've dreamed of doing the same ever since.

On this site, my earliest post on the subject dates to May 27, 1999 when I wrote about Moller International's Skycar. In 2007, I spoke with that company's general manager Bruce Caulkins. In 2013, I spoke with Carl Deitrich, CEO of Terrafugia. Both of them said they would have a flying car ready for consumers in "the next couple of years."

I'm still waiting.

This week, David Pogue of Yahoo Finance has a piece with demo videos from several companies -- including Uber, Google, and a Chinese outfit called eHang -- that are developing flying cars or sky taxis or passenger drones. Every one of them looks really cool, with vertical takeoff and landing, but I've learned not to hold my breath when it comes to predictions of when their products will be ready for anything more than test flights.

When they are, you can be sure you and I won't be able to afford to ride in them for several more years. That's the way it goes with all new technologies. Remember when only rich people had cell phones, and they were huge? Now they're ubiquitous and small enough to carry in our pockets. While flying cars will never fit in your pants, they'll someday be affordable and safe enough for consumers like us -- but that day won't come this year, or next.

By the way, when I dream about a flying car, I'm completely selfish. I don't envision the sky full of people commuting to work and cluttering the air space. I dream about me having a flying car, and no one else. You can stick to the roads -- I'll get there by air.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Streaming Suggestion: "A Futile and Stupid Gesture"

As a teenager, I was a fan of the National Lampoon. I subscribed to the magazine, listened to the radio show, and bought the Radio Dinner vinyl album. It's fair to say that the satirical sensibilities of both the Lampoon and Mad magazine (along with Woody Allen and Mel Brooks) contributed greatly to my warped sense of humor in that era.

I knew the names of all the Lampoon writers and editors, in particular Doug Kenney, who -- with his fellow Harvard Lampoon alumnus Henry Beard -- founded the national magazine. He also co-wrote the "1964 High School Yearbook Parody" and "Bored Of The Rings," as well as contributing to the Radio Show and then the stage show "National Lampoon's Lemmings." His crowning glory may be scripting the twofer that created a new genre of movie comedies, "Animal House" and "Caddyshack."

That's why I was so entertained by “A Futile and Stupid Gesture,” a movie about Kenney that's now streaming on Netflix. It's not a documentary, and you can't call it a docudrama. Will Forte plays Kenney, who died at 33 when he fell or jumped off a cliff in Kauai, Hawaii (his colleague Harold Ramis said, “Knowing him, Doug probably fell while he was looking for a safe place to jump”).

Because this movie has a Lampoon-ish feel to it, it's not all that odd that Martin Mull narrates the movie on camera as the older Doug Kenney -- despite the fact that he's 74 and Kenney didn't live half that long. That allows Mull to pop up in the middle of a scene to comment on the proceedings with lines like: "These actors don’t look exactly like the people they’re playing. But, come on, do you think I look like Will Forte when I was 27? Do you think Will Forte is 27?”

The rest of the cast is perfect, including Donhnall Gleeson as Beard, Matt Walsh as Lampoon publisher Matty Simmons, Joel McHale as Chevy Chase, Natasha Lyonne as Anne Beatts, Seth Green as Christopher Guest, Ed Helms as Tom Snyder, and Annette O'Toole as Doug's mother. Other characters in the movie include Michael O’Donaghue, Tony Hendra, Brian McConnachie, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, John Belushi, PJ O’Rourke, Chris Miller, Tim Matheson, and John Landis.

Two others deserve special mention. Lonny Ross, who was on "30 Rock," was cast as Ivan Reitman because he has the exact same hangdog face. And a guy I'd never seen before, Erv Dahl (who was on a celebrity impersonator reality show in 2007), does the best Rodney Dangerfield I've heard since Brad Garrett. In fact, at first, I thought the producers of this movie had dubbed in Rodney's own words before realizing none of those things could ever have been recorded if and when he said them -- but they sure sound like it coming out of Dahl's mouth.

As for the title, "A Futile And Stupid Gesture" comes from a scene in "Animal House" in which the Deltas are all sitting around mourning the fact that Dean Wormer has thrown them out of Faber College. Bluto (John Belushi) riles them up with a short speech, interrupted by Stork (played by Doug Kenney), who gets his only line in the movie: "What the hell are we supposed to do, ya moron?" Soon, Otter (Tim Matheson) jumps up to suggest, "This situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody's part!" Everyone agrees that they're just the guys to do it.

The value of the Lampoon brand deteriorated tremendously after about a decade, so by the mid-1980s, with most of the original writers, editors, and staff long gone, I stopped paying attention to it (as did pretty much its entire readership). The magazine limped along for a few more years, then was bought by a company that just wanted the National Lampoon name, which it attached to truly horrible movies that seem to have played nowhere but late at night on Cinemax, with titles like "Dorm Daze," "Barely Legal," and "The Legend of Awesomest Maximus."

In 2013, Ellin Stein wrote a terrific book about the history of National Lampoon, "That's Not Funny, That's Sick" (listen to my conversation with her about it here). There was also a good 2015 documentary on the subject called "Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead." Now we have this third look back at the era, as told through one of the men who led that comedy renaissance.

If you were ever a fan of Doug Kenney and the original Lampoon gang, you'll enjoy "A Futile And Stupid Gesture." I give it a 9 out of 10.

Picture Of The Day

This is a conversation from 2013 between evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and illusionist Derren Brown. The latter has become famous in England for his TV specials that combine magic and mentalism (which he never presents as anything paranormal). Dawkins asks Brown to explain cold reading, psychic tricks, and the nonsense behind tarot cards, among other things...