All About SNL: Live from LA

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The pop culture event of the moment is NBC’s Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary Special. It’s hard to believe more than three generations have grown up watching what is essentially a sketch comedy/variety show that has not deviated much in its format since it began in 1975. But that is part of what makes SNL unique. It is the longest running comedy show on television and the three and a half hour live tribute live celebration (Note: Though, as usual, it is tape delayed for the west coast – poor us) will be (Ed. note – And was!)  a marathon featuring many of its rotating cast of regulars through the years as well as many of its most famous – and infamous – sketches, hosts and musical acts.

I have actually managed to wrangle an interview with Dr. Stephen Tropiano, author of Saturday Night Live FAQ: Everything Left to Know About America’s Longest Running Comedy. Don’t ask me how. But it seemed there was no better way to write about pop culture this week than to speak with a person who would be so willing to correct and comment on my every comment, mistake and opinion when writing about this show. The following are some of the uncensored excerpts of our conversation:

The Good Doctor

The Good Doctor

Chair: The first time we met, on a Saturday night 27 years ago, we wound up watching SNL hosted by Sean Penn. This was when he was still married to Madonna and they were making jokes about him punching out paparazzi. Do you think a lot of people tie the show to specific personal memories or is it just a handful of crazies like us?

Stephen Tropiano: I think people think about the show in two ways. First in terms of where they were in their life – in college, out of college, their first job in their twenties and so on, and secondly in terms of the cast. For me, I was in eighth grade at the very beginning and…

C: Eigth grade? Okay, stop right there. And your parents let you watch it?

ST: My parents let us watch anything we wanted. And at that time, I’m not sure they knew much about it anyway. I watched it with my two older brothers and I remember laughing at John Belushi and Gilda Radner – and I remember Chevy Chase falling down. That was funny. And imitating Gerald Ford even though he didn’t look like him.

Not Ready for Primetime Superstars

Not Ready for Primetime Superstars

C: I was in college when it first started and I remember at that time we all thought of it as a younger person’s show – our show. Even though the people in it were a little older than me it felt like a place where you could see your contemporaries. It’s changed a little over the years but do you think there’s something to that, especially for young people, and maybe that’s why they get hooked on it and stay with it because they relate to a lot of the cast members?

ST: I think it depends on the era because sometimes there were younger cast members on the show like Adam Sandler or Eddie Murphy, who was one of the youngest cast members, even a little younger than Pete Davidson is now. But then there were also casts where people were in their thirties and forties, and more established like Billy Crystal and Martin Short and Michael McKean in the 80s.   But in most ways it always was and is a contemporary show. I mean that certainly has always been the challenge – how do you appeal to both audiences.   Both a younger audience and to as many other people as possible.

C: One way is to hook a younger audience and keep them as they get older. I guess I fit in that paradigm given that I went to a dress rehearsal of the show at the end of the first season when Lily Tomlin hosted and Chevy Chase pretended to be the Jaws shark delivering a Candy-gram.

Before Katy Perry's Left Shark there was.... LANDSHARK

Before Katy Perry’s Left Shark there was…. LANDSHARK

ST: Wow, you are old.

C: No comment.

ST: But I’m also old now and I still watch the show too.   I think another way they attract younger viewers is with the musical guest. Now because I’m old there are musical guests that I’ve never heard of but what they’re hoping is that people will be tuning in for them, young people particularly.

C: I couldn’t imagine my parents or people in their fifties or sixties watching the musical acts or comedy we were watching back then.

ST: Well, at the beginning it WAS a show for baby boomers. The idea was definitely appealing to that specific demographic of people and I think with the musical guests, this was before MTV and there were a lot of musical acts they had on that you just didn’t see on television very much.   There were more mainstream people like Paul Simon but also performers like Gil Scot-Heron, Loudon Wainwright III and Esther Phillips. Even Janis Ian, though she had a hit record, you didn’t necessarily see someone like her on TV.

Iggy is that you?

Iggy is that you?

C: That’s true. She was the Iggy Azalea of her day if you took away Janis’ songwriting ability and sensitivity and added, well, I’m not sure. Care to chime in?

ST: You’re on your own there.

C: There ARE so many outlets to see everyone now so it’s not quite the same. Even with comedy and political satire. Stuff like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report in some ways did supplant SNL among younger audiences. Though not entirely.

ST: A part of it has to do with viewing habits. Those are daily shows broadcast every day (Note: That’s why they’re daily shows) and they peaked when DVRs came into popularity. Also, they’re attached to a network like Comedy Central – it was branded to that generation. SNL is considered to be an older generation in terms of branding because it’s on NBC. But still, it has younger audience appeal. Comedy Central is more something they tune into automatically when they come home. They also tend to think of Jon Stewart as a voice of their generation.

C: Even though he’s in his early fifties.

ST: It’s more about the idea that he is on Comedy Central. Which is their channel. Plus, he’s been doing the show for a lot of years. He was in his thirties when he started.

Just a wee lad then

Just a wee lad then

C: Why do you think SNL has been able to stay on the air for 40 years? I can’t think of anything else other than maybe Meet the Press…

ST: And some soap operas. Well, it’s the longest running comedy on television but when you say that you can’t think of it as being like a sitcom. In this way, what the show was always able to do was kind of reinvent itself – become an updated version of itself – and it usually did that because of the talent and because of the writers. Also, just the format of the sketch-variety show kind of lends itself to it. It would not have worked if all the people who were the original Not Ready For Prime Time Players stayed on the show. It just couldn’t.

C: Which is not to say the ratings were always high or that every season worked.

ST: Yeah, they had trouble throughout most of the 1980s. It wasn’t until Lorne Michaels came back that it started to become more popular again. But when he first came back they were struggling and they put in very young cast members like Robert Downey, Jr. and Anthony Michael Hall and it didn’t really work. They tried Billy Crystal and the others earlier and went with experience and it improved but he was only really on for a year. Probably because it was far too much work for him.

Mr. Marvelous

Mr. Marvelous

C: And for very little money. Why continue on the show when it opens up so many other opportunities for you? That is certainly the case now when so many cast members leave and become movie stars.

ST: Though not everyone does. It really depends.

C: Yes, it’s tricky and unpredictable. You had people like Chevy Chase, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray and then Eddie Murphy and Adam Sandler. Followed by Will Ferrell and now, in some sense, Kristen Wiig.

ST: And Jane Curtin became a big television star as well as Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. Also recently, they have also starred in movies. But then there were a whole tier of people who might not have become major movie stars – like David Spade and Chris Farley, or Joe Piscopo and Dana Carvey – who did star in some films. Billy Crystal was a movie star. Christopher Guest went on to direct all of his movies. And let’s not leave out Senator Al Franken.

From one desk to another

From one desk to another

C: A political star. I still can’t get over that. Though I’m not unhappy about it.

ST: He will be relieved.

C: I hope so. I can be dangerously scathing. Which brings me to how people enjoy loving or hating SNL. It really seems to be all over the place depending on who you speak to, though mostly I think the reaction is pretty positive, not to mention nostalgic since most of us tend to remember the sketches and characters and performers we did like so fondly.

ST: Well, everybody loves to say, ‘oh, the show was so much better back in the day,’ but back in the early years people were a little bit more forgiving because it was a newer show. Also, there were always a lot of things that didn’t work, often on every show, I saw that doing research for the book. You tend to block those out, though. But the sketches that do work – those are the ones that live on and that’s kind of what we remember the most. And there are a lot of those.

C: Are some eras just funnier than others?

ST: I think the show tends to ramp up around election years and depending on who is president. Sarah Palin was like the Golden Goose in terms of comedy when she was running for election and Tina Fey’s impersonation…

Tina-Fey-as-Sarah-Palin-are-we-not-doing-the-talent-portion-GIF-from-Saturday-Night-Live-SNL

C: You never felt she had to change much of the real Pailn dialogue.

ST: She didn’t! The sketch where Amy Poehler played Katie Couric interviewing her is almost verbatim! But I mean, the Bill and Hillary Clinton years – Bill Clinton was a great person to impersonate. And Will Ferrell doing Bush lends itself to comedy. It also depends on what’s going on in the world. Barack Obama can be parodied but he’s not like Bill Clinton who is bigger than life.

C: What is one of your favorite political sketches?

ST: Well, I like the one where you have Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush having tea at the White House when the Reagans are leaving…

Click here for the full video

Click here for the full video

C: And Nancy Reagan’s is grasping on to the furniture for dear life in an attempt not to leave and you see security dragging her out. It felt so real! But I have to admit I found it hard to laugh at some of the Dubya sketches with Will Ferrell saying strategery. Even though it was really funny it was hard to laugh because of how true and sad the whole thing was.

ST: You’re really bringing down the room.

C: You’re right. Clearly, if I were a sketch I’d be cut. One of my absolute favorite sketches, I have to admit was the first Debbie Downer where Rachel Dratch starts breaking up in close-up. I still makes me scream.

ST: Part of the reason that one was so memorable is that there really isn’t a sketch where everyone is breaking up. In that one, everybody is losing it. I think six or seven people.

C: What are some of the memorable ones for you?

Word Associate with Chevy and Richard

Word Associate with Chevy and Richard

ST: Well, probably the best and most famous was the Chevy Chase-Richard Pryor sketch that was about racism. It was written by Richard Pryor’s writer Paul Mooney because they felt that Pryor’s humor was not going to represented on the show.

C: That is one of mine too. It’s less funny than wonderfully true and real satire. I also LOVE Dan Aykroyd playing Julia Child cutting her finger while preparing a chicken and bleeding to death onscreen.

ST: If we’re going to go there I have to mention The Claudine Longet Invitational Ski Tournament where people competing get shot by her while skiing down the slope.

C: I remember they had to apologize for that one. And for those who don’t know about it, they can look it up.

ST: I also loved The Sweeney Sisters.

C: Oh My God, Clang, clang, clang went the Trolley. Now you have me thinking of Delicious Dish and Shweaty Balls. Not to mention Maya Rudolph doing Donatella Versace – GET OUT!!!!!!!! Your favorite all time performer – the most unfair question?

ST: Hmmm, I guess it would be Gilda Radner.

The Queen

The Queen

C: No fair, she was mine!

ST: The characters she did – Roseanne Rosannadanna and Emily Litella, as well as the Judy Miller Show. They were just very real. And we should also say she had people like Alan Zweibel and Marilyn Suzanne Miller writing specifically for her – that’s why she got so many characters on.

C: I loved Lisa Loopner – the nerdy girl – and her best friend Todd, who Bill Murray played. Especially when he gave her “noogies” and she couldn’t stop giggling. I think I probably related.

Toddddddddddd

Toddddddddddd

ST: Probably?

C: You were supposed to say – ‘oh no, I can’t imagine how you would relate!’

ST: That was not one of the lines I was given.

C: Best host? I know this one is also unfair.

ST: Hmmm. I would say Steve Martin. His type of comedy seems to best fit the show because it tends to be in smaller bits.

... and the King

… and the King

C: Or when he did stuff like the King Tut song, which actually became a hit on the radio. It was sort of like the precursor to viral videos like Lazy Sunday. For me the best host in recent years is probably Justin Timberlake.

ST: He’s sort of the perfect person because aside from being musical we had no idea that he was truly funny. It was unexpected and he was game for anything. Lorne Michaels has said some of his favorite hosts were sports guys because they’re fearless. They’re used to giving their all and don’t care how they look. I mean, who thought Peyton Manning would be funny?

C: Or Charles Barkley. Favorite character? Mine is Stefon. I can’t help it.

ST: Part of the reason Stefon was so good– aside from how great Bill Hader was doing him – was that it was extremely well-written. The amount of items and dialogue John Mulaney, who wrote the sketches, would come up with allowed Bill Hader to not only be great but break up because they’d add one or two things to the list when he’d be doing the show live that he didn’t know about.

Stefon-Final

C: There’s something about people breaking character in the right way that never fails. So who are some of your faves, other than Stefon?

ST: I’d have to say – The Sweeney Sisters and Roseanne Rosannadanna. I also thought in terms of characters, Mike Meyers did some of the most incredible work.

C: Rather than discuss them perhaps we should end with them. Since apparently his Dr. Evil is partly based on Lorne Michaels – who started SNL to begin with.

"Allegedly"

“Allegedly”

ST: Mike Meyers has said that isn’t true. That just vocally it only sounds like him because they are both Canadian. But it is his favorite character.

C: Well, I’ve learned something new. You are a fountain of information.

ST: Are you being snide?

C: Me? Certainly not. I am not an SNL character. Yet.

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Black, White and Mute

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I wrote the following paragraph back in August – a few days after teenager Michael Brown was killed by Officer Darren Wilson on an otherwise ordinary summer day.

As a white person you shake your head at the television screen when you watch the police in Ferguson, MO tear gas mostly black protestors who are on the street because an 18 year old African American male with his arms raised in the air was shot six times and killed by a white patrolman who seems to have been allowed to vanish into thin air.

We have since learned and experienced quite a bit. Among them is the officer’s name, location and story of what happened – which directly contradicts that of several eyewitnesses, one of whom law enforcement officials did not bother to interview until many days later.

... what Amy said

… what Amy said

We have also gotten to know Mr. Brown’s family through numerous television interviews and statements (well, as much as you can) and have seen their pain publicly projected across the world courtesy of our uber-advanced, ever-evolving global communications systems.

We have done even more.

We have observed as numerous political figures from white and black communities have demanded that once and for all we attempt to address why it is so many young black men seem to be getting shot these days by white male authority figures while we have noticed almost simultaneously the white male authority figures in Missouri, led by Ferguson’s district attorney and the state’s governor, digging in their heels and indignantly railing against the protestors who dare to question and cross the line in frustration as their anger explodes through the streets.

Asking the right questions

Asking the right questions

We have also participated, virtually and otherwise, as this anger spreads to most major cities across the country where other indignant authority figures are no doubt lying in wait trying to control events from their offices and court houses so as to avoid the inevitable next racial and very public catastrophe.

As if the latter is even possible – especially with that strategy.

So what is next and advisable? On the former point, probably a lot of chatter and attempts at some legislative adjustments until the next shooting happens. What is advisable? Well, shutting up and listening without speaking would be a start. This is not cynicism but merely fact based on recent history. And it’s mostly directed to the white people reading this.

The New Yorker nails it with their recent cover

The New Yorker nails it with their recent cover

As a very white person I’m angry and, quite frankly, don’t even know what to think or do about any of this. After all, Ferguson, MO, like Sanford, FL, the city where another black male teenager, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, was murdered last year by a neighborhood watchman, is not Alabama or Mississippi – the historical epicenters for the gunning down of unarmed young black men in the U.S.   Heck, neither one of them are even in the Deep South.

I don’t know what you do or think about all of this if you’re black – especially a young black male. Though I would imagine back in August that at the very least I’d have been on the streets and would probably have stayed there past midnight. (Note: Even before I first became a teenager at the tail end of the turbulent 1960s, curfews were never my strong point). After the exoneration of the man who shot Trayvon Martin, followed by exoneration of Officer Wilson from any wrongdoing in the shooting of Michael Brown, which, only several days later, was followed by the shooting of a 12 year old black boy in Ohio by a police officer because the guy thought the toy gun the kid was pointing was real – well, at the very least I’d now not only take to the streets but would try to destroy something, or even someone. Though in my case, it would probably be through nasty, sarcastic, cutting words. This is understandable because those are the weapons I grew up around and have been trained with. Had I had another kind of life, well… who can say?

A different version of "bad breath"

A different version of “bad breath”

What I did do in desperation was email a former student and friend/writer colleague of mine – who happens to be tall, African American, male and in his mid-twenties – and pled with him in a caring yet somewhat humorous way to “please, please, please be careful.” I did this because I felt as if I had to attempt something concrete other than to rant and rave. Besides, I know that sarcastic, cutting words are, to a large extent, also his weapons of choice. And he brandishes these weapons quite well, almost as well as I do. My fear is that as a journalist covering those events, or as a twenty-something guy in the Midwest buying a smoke or even a soda at his local convenience store, he’d launch his ammunition in exactly the wrong direction. I couldn’t let that happen. In my mind, this was perhaps one small thing I could prevent. Though in retrospect my gesture feels awkward and ill-advised. Still, it’s not the dumbest thing I’ve ever done. Or will do in the future.

gBx185u

To those who want to categorize my musings as pseudo liberal crap or white guilt (or both) let me brutally honest. I respect both the law and law enforcement and imagine that being a beat cop in any city in the US is a scary proposition these days. And let’s be even more blunt, it’s probably more than a little bit scary for white guys who patrol black neighborhoods given how these white guys are perceived and dressed. And given reality. But what also seems a given, more than a given, is that if you are a trained policeman there is no reason in the world to shoot an unarmed 18 year old 6-10 times (the latter being the number of bullet shells found in the area) in order to prevent him from…well, doing anything. I would think three or four plugs from a decent officer would do it and even if he weren’t a very good shot. Wouldn’t you?

That being said – here’s the truth. I’m sickened and embarrassed for my pigmentation. Seriously. As a gay, Jewish, somewhat short guy (Note: That’s triple minority status), I have tried through the years to reason with fellow whites on the privilege of being in the majority and the marginalization of “the other.” I particularly did this with my parents’ friends when I was younger and as you can see – well, a lot of good that did. I have even continued to do so through the years though nowhere near as vehemently. Then again, you find that as time goes on you don’t have the energy to do everything – or really, anything – quite as vehemently.

... and social media only makes it worse

… and social media only makes it worse

That being the case let’s try a new tactic. And that would be to spread the word for white people – and particularly our political leaders in Missouri, Florida and Ohio (the latter being the location of the most recent shooting of that pesky 12 year old) – to NOT SAY ANOTHER WORD. Rather, hand over the stage to the protestors – preferably the non-white kind, and HEAR what is being said. Do not simply listen, but HEAR. And then, HEAR some more. Continue on and then… ZIP IT. Zip it GOOD. Because now you need the time to THINK AND REFLECT. Make that a long time.

I have no idea what to tell the black community to do at this point. Which should be a welcome relief to them – especially coming from a white guy.

The 2nd Annual Rockers!

Screen shot 2013-12-29 at 1.06.20 PMThis is not a BEST OF  list.   It’s about impact, surprise and lingering effect.  As a lifelong culture vulture, creative person and relentless observer of waaay too much, I have the greatest respect for anything out there that stays with me – particularly in a good way.   Mostly because it’s so tough to break through all the noise these days.   Or perhaps it’s just that lately I have the attention span of a gnat.

Of course, starting any project with the goal of making a huge and lasting splash is a sure recipe for disaster.  Much as I hate to admit, this has happened to me several times over the years.  However, when people hunker down and “do their own thing” (as they used to say back in the day) the result can sometimes be, for lack of a better word – sublime.

sub·lime

1. Characterized by nobility; majestic.

2. a. Of high spiritual, moral, or intellectual worth.

b. Not to be excelled; supreme.

3. Inspiring awe; impressive.

Did someone say Supreme?

Did someone say Supreme?

Any one of those could earn you a Rocker and, let’s face it, who among us wouldn’t want to be awarded a photo of a red mid-century style chair.  (Note: Chair – Rocker, get it?).  Though perhaps using the term nobility is a bit much. Definition #3 – impressive, inspiring awe – isn’t that enough?  Yes, I think so.  And these, in no particular order other than the one that we chose, are my OUR awards.

BEST ROCKIN’ INDIE DARLINGS

Short Term 12; Fruitvale Station; The Spectacular Now

Indie, dahling

Indie, dahling

These three movies, all low budget independent films, have more to say in 5 minutes than do most of their budget-bloated major studio brethren manage to serve up in two three hours.  Of course, their combined box-office grosses are not equivalent to the opening weekend of, say – Ironman 3; Thor 2; or even Jack the Giant Slayer.

What this confirms once more is that fine dramatic storytelling is not the goal of the major studios anymore.  Though if it manages to happen on one of their releases amid a large profit and even larger chance to cash in via future ancillary markets and/or rights, they’ll take it.

Do not write in and call me a snob or say that this has been so in the film biz for one or two decades.  I, and even we, know that.  But it’s getting worse.  Can’t we retain even a small sliver?  Well, in their own awe-inspiring, impressive ways all three of the above did that and more.

Short Term 12:  Bravura performances all around in a deceptively multi-layered and tight original screenplay from first time writer-director Destin Cretton – whose next announced project is the film adaptation of the bestselling book The Glass Castle, starring Jennifer Lawrence.  If there is any justice Mr. Cretton will be Oscar and WGA nominated for his story of juvenile outcasts and the young people who try to help them at a “short term” facility – but there likely isn’t.  Still – now he’s got JLaw so it’s a win-win.

The Spectacular Now: A throwback to the small romantic dramas of decades ago where two mismatched, oddball young people fall in love in a most uncomfortable way.  It’s not perfect but it has so much heart that it wins you over.  This is in part due to actors Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller and to an even greater extent as a result of the adaptation of the book by 500 Days of Summer writers Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, and the precise, sensitive work of director James Ponsoldt.  The script lingered for years before Ms. Woodley, a hot commodity after starring as George Clooney’s troubled daughter in The Descendants, became its champion.  Lesson here:  Create great roles for actors.

Fruitvale Station: Finally caught up with it last night at home and am still foaming at the mouth with rage at the murder six years ago of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year old African American male who was finally about to get his life together for the sake of his daughter, his family and himself.  The choice of writer-director and USC film school grad Ryan Coogler to tell this real life story in an unembellished pseudo-documentary style is what’s most impressive here.  The film was developed through Sundance and won best dramatic feature.   Yes, there are those who like to dismiss Sundance these days as pretentious and elitist.  Watch this movie before you go there.   In fact, just don’t go there anymore.

STEFON’S FAREWELL!

Bill Hader left the cast of Saturday Night Live at the end of the season this year and along with that went the departure of Stefon – his beloved club kid correspondent for Weekend Update.  Since goodbyes are often an inevitable and dreaded part of life – especially when it comes to the mercurial television landscape – it was at least nice to see that he was sent off with love and style and his own sort of gay wedding.

What can you say about a segment that featured Furbies, the real DJ Baby Bok Choy and an Anderson Cooper-Seth Meyers fist fight?  Only that it was a perfect homage and finale to one of SNL’s most original and beloved characters.

(Note:  For everything you ever wanted to know about the 38 seasons of SNL check out the funny, brand new and exhaustively researched book, Saturday Night Live FAQ: Everything Left to Know About Television’s Longest-Running ComedyThe author is Stephen Tropiano and he’s the Seth to my inner Stefon)

Note: Hader created Stefon with the very talented comedian-writer John Mulaney.  His standup act is hilarious and he is doing a new TV comedy for Fox next year in which he’ll star as the young, struggling comedian he once was.  Co-starring will be Martin Short.  Must see TV?  We think so.

ROCKIN’ NEWS MOMENT OF THE YEAR 

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US Supreme Court Pro Gay Marriage Ruling.

Starring:  Rob Reiner, David Boies, Ted Olson, Edie Windsor, Kristin Perry & Sandra Stier, Paul Katami & Jeffrey Zarrillo – and President Barack Obama.

There has not been a film or television movie about it – yet.  But this year’s landmark US Supreme Court rulings that officially legalized gay marriage on a federal level is a landmark case that will have positive civil rights repercussions for generations.

Not to be partisan – but I will be – the reasoning behind this decision was foreshadowed in Pres. Obama’s 2013 inauguration speech where he talked about the journey “through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall.”  Translation:  the struggle for women’s rights, civil rights, and LGBT rights are all one in the same and if the US stands for anything it means we progress towards freedoms for not some but all Americans.    Here is his exact quote:

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on earth.

citizen_cane

Arguing the case were lawyers Boies and Olson – adversaries in another famous US Supreme Court case, Bush v. Gore, for the courageous LGBT defendants Windsor, Perry, Stier, Katami and Zarrillo.  Oh, and if you don’t think it takes courage to be the public face in a civil rights case in terms of time, attention and vociferous hate mail – try it some time.  Or better yet, just post a comment to any random website where you disagree with an extreme right wing position – as I did this weekend about A & E’s reversing its decision to reinstate Duck Dynasty’s hate-speaking Phil Robertson – and note the number of truly savage, hate-filled responses you get.  It ain’t pretty.

A meathead no more!

A meathead no more!

Finally, you can dislike whatever Rob Reiner films you choose to but you cannot be disagreeable about his overwhelming commitment of time and energy to both raise money and personally finance the fight for gay marriage through it’s case origins in California right up through to the US Supreme Court.  There are political activists in the industry but few with Mr. Reiner’s reach, fervor or unwavering determination.  And, uh – p.s. – he’s not even g-a-y.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

BREAKING BAD – THE FINALE SEASON

Tear.

Tear.

There are so few moments in pop culture that live up to the hype.  But the phenomenon that was Breaking Bad was one of them.  I was admittedly late to the game in catching up with all seven seasons but given the national cultural hysteria I finally gave in, knowing full well that I would inevitably be disappointed.

Okay, well, so I don’t know everything.

I chronicled my eight days of binge-watching all 52 BB episodes here in time to join the real world in real time for the finale.  It might make my life seem small and insignificant to note that it is one of the few experiences I will never forget – but only if you have never tuned in and checked out the show itself.

Why does it work?   There are so many obvious reasons – great writing, acting, directing and across-the-board terrific technical talents.  But it was also a perfect reflection of our times in telling the story of an extremely smart but downtrodden everyman – nee a financially struggling high school chemistry teacher who is suddenly diagnosed with terminal cancer– who will do anything to provide not only for his family but for himself before he dies.  And anything means – A-N-Y-T-H-I-N-G. If you want to know more than that, borrow some DVDs or hack into someone else’s Netflix account.

Finales are tricky but this one proved every bit as powerful as each and every episode before it.  Sadly, this was not the case with another departing hit show fave of mine – Dexter.  Yes, endings are tough.   But ending well and going out the way you came in (Note:  Yes, that’s an unintentional quote from the 1967 camp classic Valley of the Dolls) – that’s the toughest.

ROCKIN’ THE WOOL OVER THE AUDIENCE’S EYES  — IT’S A TIE!!!

HBO’S Behind the Candelabra  &  NBC’s The Sound of Music – LIVE

Help!

Help!

Popularity doesn’t mean you rock.  It just means you’re popular.  I mean, did Paris Hilton rock?  Does (or did?)  Kim Kardashian?  Or, to put it another way, did Crash deserve to win the best picture Oscar over Brokeback Mountain? (Note: Watch them again and then compare and report back).

What popularity does account for are bodies taking notice of you or your deeds or your product.  That does not mean you’re good or even well done.  It just means you are and that you got A LOT of attention.

Therefore, by any objective standards the Liberace movie called Behind the Candelabra and the NBC live three-hour broadcast of the beloved musical The Sound of Music starring country singer Carrie Underwood were phenomenal hits.  But to my mind, not in a good way.  Carrie Underwood has a pleasant voice but cannot act.  I mean, I could’ve played a better Maria – especially if I got to do some of those lines next to Audra MacDonald.

As for story of closeted gay icon pianist Liberace – it was not the true story – that would have been far more salacious since Liberace’s real life lover Scott Thorson was 16 years old when they first met and couldn’t have been played by Matt Damon.  Had the real story been told – and not just the gay men as spectacle taleit would have had to be shown as the telefilm version of NBC’s To Catch A Predator.

In conclusion, and put it in high school terms – which often works in all things Hollywood – there is no way to argue with popularity.  It either is or it isn’t and you either are or you’re not.  But remember – the Emperor’s New Clothes were once popular, too.   Just sayin’.

ROCKIN’ SENTIMENTAL MOVIE OF THE YEAR

Saving Mr. Banks

Believe the hype.

Believe the hype.

No, I’m not going to defend myself.  I loved it — and not just because I loved Mary Poppins as a kid. The film is being sold as a comedy but it’s really about how writers (or any artists) try to survive the painful moments of childhood by weaving its high and low points into some sort of creative expression that can correct and/or save you or your loved ones from the situation.  As a writer who has done just that – and speaking for anyone else who hopes to do just that – you can keep all of your snide, snickering bah humbug remarks to yourself.

Plus – there’s Emma Thompson.  She’s not only sad, touching and irascibly funny in the movie, she gives the most hilarious press interviews you’ll ever want to see.  Case closed.

ROCKIN’ MALE PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR:

Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis

Me-Ow

Me-Ow

The guy can act AND sing.  No, seriously – he can really, really sing.  You can’t fake that when you’re playing the lead role of a folk singer in 1961 Greenwich Village in a Coen Bros. movie and a good part of the film is you, in five feet of close-up, chirping unadorned for the entire international world to see.

Also when the moments that you are singing onstage are the only ones where the audience can truly sympathize with your character’s plight, it is an enormous acting challenge.  Therefore, it didn’t surprise me or anyone else to hear the filmmakers admit publicly on a panel after an early screening of their film that had Mr. Isaac not walked in and nailed his audition very late in the casting process they were not sure if they would be able to make their movie at all.

The film as a whole is to a taste.  Okay, it’s odd.  But it’s also a rare opportunity to watch someone you’ve probably never seen onscreen before totally morph into an unforgettable character you’re unlikely to see onscreen again at any time soon.  If ever.

ROCKIN’ FEMALE PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR IN TECH ACHIEVEMENT OF THE YEAR:

Sandra Bullock, Gravity

Floating towards.. Oscar?

Floating towards.. Oscar?

Oh, hiss and boo your own selves, as Bette Midler so aptly put it in her 1985 comedy album Mud Will Be Flung, Tonight!  I thought Sandy (yeah, that’s what everyone in the biz calls her) was pretty great in the movie….actually, quite great.

Fine – you try acting to nothing for most of your time on camera.  And when I say nothing I mean – nada.  There’s a green screen behind you.  You’re suspended in the air in a heavy faux astronaut’s uniform.  And you’re shooting on and off for years on end, trying to maintain some continuity of your character’s emotional state while the technical team behind your film tries over and over again to get the special effects just right.

Yeah, yeah, I know Cate Blanchett was terrific in Blue Jasmine.  But why does digging into the emotional life of a Ruth Madoff meets Blanche DuBois character have to trump the acting skill it takes to survive the contemporary vagaries of big major studio, SFX ridden contemporary Hollywood while simultaneously delivering an against-the-odds truly convincing performance that literally carries the film?  It doesn’t.  Sorry.  Sandy wins.

PS – Yes, her body looked good in those shorts.  So what??!!!

PPS – The movie was a huge leap in what we can do in SFX – not that you care!!

ROCKIN’ ACCLAIMED NOVEL I STARTED THREE TIMES BUT CAN’T YET CRACK: 

The Goldfinch By Donna Tart

This is thoroughly unfair but why can’t I read past pg. 20 of 761 pages no matter how many times I read those 20 pages over? I know the book is acclaimed but why, why, why is its prose so dry, dry, dry and leaving me so parched, parched, parched?  Too much TV?

tumblr_mea9wqzdbK1rl7213o1_500

(Note: Before judging me you should know I read every wet word of both Jonathon Franzen’s The Corrections AND Freedom and always wanted more).

ROCKIN’ UNACCLAIMED MEMOIR I LIKE TO READ ESSAYS FROM:

Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies, By Chris Kluwe

Also.. best hair!

Also.. best hair!

Funny, snide, smart, scrappy, funny, fun, fun.

And it’s not only because he’s hot and spoke up for the gays.  And…personally answered one of my tweets.  On Twitter.  In a direct message.  Okay, maybe that’s part of it.  But it’s not…everything.

ROCKIN(EST) SCARY VERSION OF THE FUTURE THAT MIGHT ALREADY BE THE PRESENT:

Spike Jonze’s Her

Falling in love... no buffering

Falling in love… no buffering

This is a world where a lonely fella can fall in love with his operating system (OS).  Yes, the OS is voiced brilliantly by Scarlett Johansson, who strangely enough gives what, oddly, is her best screen performance.  The sexy rasp and all…

Still, there is something significant happening here that goes well beyond Simone, the interesting but long forgotten 2002 film where a man concocts the ideal virtual female.  What’s going on is also significantly depressing if you think about it for too long or in the wrong way.  What is the right way to consider a world in the not so distant future where many of us are so incapable of relationships that we turn to our computers or mobile devices for our primary emotional attachments?  To admit that it is really happening right now?  Or to dismiss that notion as some sort of superficial movie industry take on New Media for Dummies?  Hmm, maybe neither.

None of this would work at all were it not for Joaquin Phoenix’s extremely committed performance.  But none of it would even be possible at all without the originality Spike Jonze brings to a subject matter so easy to present in a hackneyed way.

Wait – originality?  Yeah, I said it – you didn’t have to.  So, maybe 2013 leaves us with some hope after all?  Well, we can all rock to… this:

Happy Holidays!

IN 3-D (no doubt)

IN 3-D (no doubt)

And it will be happy because — yes, there will be an Angry Birds: The Movie!.  Okay, you will have to wait three and a half years for those chicks to hatch (yuk, yuk – can you tell I used to write press releases?) but in the summer of 2016 one of the most downloaded games in the history of that stuff will be released at a multiplex near you.

Here’s part of the just circulated announcement of that already anticipated film:

December 11th, 2012 — Santa Monica, California — On the third anniversary of the release of Angry Birds, Rovio Entertainment announced that Despicable Me producer John Cohen has signed on as producer of the upcoming Angry Birds movie. David Maisel, former Chairman of Marvel Studios and executive producer of Iron Man, will be executive producer of the feature film, coming to theaters in summer 2016. The film will be produced and financed by Rovio Entertainment. John Cohen most recently produced Illumination Entertainment/Universal Pictures’ Despicable Me in 2010 and executive produced Illumination/Universal’s Hop in 2011. Prior to Illumination, Cohen was VP of Production at Twentieth Century Fox Animation. He worked closely with Blue Sky Studios on films including Ice Age, Robots, Ice Age: The Meltdown and Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who. Cohen had the idea to reimagine Alvin and the Chipmunks and developed the 2007 film.

Now — here is what I created a year and a half ago for my students.  This wholly fictional creation was in order for them to do an outlandishly fake movie marketing exercise:

March 28, 2011 – Los Angeles, California

As you all know, Pendleton Productions has purchased the rights to Angry Birds and has set up “Angry Birds: The Movie” as our first animated/live action tent pole film with Pixar Studios.   It will, of course, be directed by Brad Bird (The Incredibles).  We have cast Angelina Jolie, Paul Rudd, Andrew Garfield, Willow Smith and Kim Kardashian as our birds.  Our pigs will be played by Zack Galifinakis, Hugh Jackman and Jack Black. In the time remaining, we’d like you to develop a detailed marketing plan to launch our film.  Actually, it’s more than a film.  It’s an event.  Or will be if we decide to hire you because that will be your responsibility. The marketing plan should reach across all media and be as creative and out-of-the-box as possible while still staying within the realm of reality.  Whose reality?  That’s up to you.  But it should include publicity and promotion plans for the launch, advertising ideas, tie-ins, merchandising, product placement and any other means of creating public attention (but not backlash).  It should also take into account platforms in film, television, music, new media and all social media.  Because we want to reach, well – EVERYONE!! 

What can I say?  That this is when you know you’ve been in the entertainment industry too long?  Or not long enough because you’re still surprised by it?

Bottom line — There is NOitem, idea or concept that cannot become a movie –  especially if it’s one that has proved uber-successful in another medium.  In fact, it’s preferable that the item, idea or concept has already done well somewhere else.  Because that means there is something called “brand recognition,” which ups the elusive financial “X” factor that will ensure your movie blockbuster status.  I mean, look at the box-office receipts of  Aeon Flux, The Dukes of Hazzard, Tekken, Battlefield Earth, The Mod Squad, The Honeymooners, Super Mario Bros. and Bewitched alone and you can see I’m correct, right?  Okay, perhaps those are bad examples.  Well, they’re at least bad somethings.

Ouija Board: The Movie? Spirit says no.

Ouija Board: The Movie? Spirit says no.

Note:  Please do not write in with either the box-office grosses or reviews of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (especially since two friends of mine wrote that one), Mortal Kombat, The Brady Bunch Movie or The Prince of Persia because I’m not interested in anything that disproves the cynical yet obvious point I’m trying to make.

It was not always thus so.  I mean, can you imagine The Seventh Seal in this kind of climate?  But conversely, there could perhaps be The Seventh Seal video game or phone app if that Bergman film were a post millennium release and one were trying to tweak the bounds of taste just a tad.

Well... I guess there's a board game tie in.

Well… I guess there’s a board game tie in.

What to do?  In keeping with the holiday spirit, we’d like to make a modest proposal of some titles that Hollywood could perhaps consider for future Christmas time seasonal announcements of films in the future.

1. Swiffer:  The Film – It’s the animated adventure of a lonely mop who finds itself jettisoned back in time to a Mad Men-like 1950s reality where being disposable is seen as a negative and lack of proper refills ensure its extinction.  How will Swiffer cope and stay alive?  Can it adjust to going from top dog prince to Eisenhower-era pauper?  Stay tuned.

Does this outfit make me look fat?

Does this outfit make me look fat?

2 The Adventures of Abed and The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started A Conversation With at a Party – Popular post-modern man-child Abed from the soon to be defunct NBC cult hit Community goes on the road with Cecily Strong’s soon-to-be breakout character from the new 2012 season of Saturday Night Live.  Together they travel the terminally unhip worlds of America they inadvertently make hip because of their own unintentionally po-mo hipness factor.

Click for some stimulating party conversation...

Click for some stimulating party conversation…

3. The Church of Stefon – SNL’s Stefon (because SNL always suffers from film spinoff overkill) flies solo and crash lands into red state America where he helps a group of down-on-their luck fundamentalist pastors rebuild a Church that was destroyed by the first super Tsunami-tornado ever recorded on U.S. soil.  While the preachers blame the emergence of the LGBT community for the aberrant weather, Stefon teaches them through determination and humor that God’s creatures all only have one religion — Clubbing.

Wholesome family entertainment

Wholesome family entertainment

4.  Game of De-Thrones – What happens when Mitt Romney, Hilliary Clinton, Michael Dukakis and Sarah Palin look-a-likes team up to topple their more famous counterparts? Do they take their place in the hierarchy of American political leaders who almost were and institute their plan to once again run in national elections, backed by a shadow rogue group of disgraced Wall Street bankers, in order to recreate the once greatest world power of the U.S. in their own unique vision? Stay tuned.

5. The Pet Rock Musical – Desperate for a Broadway hit, a group of both young and has-been producers team up to create an original musical embracing the beauty of played out sociological trends with hopes that it will be just bad enough to capture the public fancy. Featuring tributes to not only the pet rock but to Cabbage Patch Dolls, Game Boys, Beanie Babies, Nehru Suits, Furby (wait, is that back?), Zhu Zhu Pets, Razor Scooters and the 8-Ball.

6.  Super Nerds and Real Housewives – A new romantic comedy featuring three couples from the various cities of Bravo’s Real Housewives fame who find themselves in Silicon Valley married to everything from well-meaning bores to abusively damaging computer nerds.  In the end one couple divorces, one stays together and a third takes in a third partner.  Not yet determined if addition to third couple will be male or female or some combination of both.

Probable movie poster

Probable movie poster

7. Pandora’s Box – A store clerk’s Pandora account will only play songs loved by his ex-girlfriend, prompting the young man to go on a journey to find the woman (whose name is also, coincidentally, Pandora) and stop her from marrying a phony entrepreneur (who is only using her for her name) before it’s too late. Starring Michael Cera (obviously).

8. Twit Her – The super-villainess Twit Her must hack into the accounts of the 10 people with the most Twitter followers, who were discovered to have been abusing the system and illegally creating an unauthorized list of unwilling fans.   Her mission: reduce their followers to zero and have the real taste makers finally assume their rightful place in the  echelon of who and what is important.

9. Instagram and Other Unworldly Events – Pictures from a man’s past, present and future lives begin coming alive in the room at the worst possible moments, threatening to ruin his life.  He must hunt down the reclusive real creator of Instagram to dismantle the service before he himself is eventually reduced to merely a series of endless, three-dimensional photos in time.

America's Sweetheart

America’s Sweetheart

10. A Honey Boo-Boo Christmas – Low-budget, independent film where the rural family travels to California looking for The Beverly Hillbillies and instead run into Lindsay Lohan and take her under their wings to teach her the true meaning of holiday spirit without money.  Lindsay Lohan has, in fact, just been signed to play herself. (I’d watch this).

I’m not sure what the marketing campaigns will be on any one of these films.  However, I do know that 18 months ago my students came up with this kind of fun stuff for the then fictional Angry Birds movie.

a. A real life Angry Birds game with some of the stars of the film (Jack Black was specifically cited in this one).

b. A real life board game (which might actually already exist) in American landmarks like Times Square and St. Louis’ Gateway Arch.

c. ABC partners to do an Angry Birds version of Wipeout.

4. A master guerilla marketing guru who out text messages to a bunches of people in a given room saying things like “Knocking out pigs and pass it on”

5. A cirque du soleil type show at premiere.

Stay tuned to see if any of our predictions or strategies come true.

In the meantime, Have fun, be safe and go see a movie.  In a movie theatre, that is.