God Bless, Dave

I’ve always been a night owl.

When I was a little boy, I had a 5 inch black & white TV in my room. Mom would send us to bed at 10:00 or 10:30, and I’d either lie in bed and read, or just sit and stare at my Atlanta Falcons alarm clock until 11:29. That was the magic time when I’d lean over and turn on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. I was only 6 or 7 then, and I’m sure most of Johnny’s jokes flew right over my head. Still, there was just something about having Johnny there. His gentle, if predictable, humor and grandfatherly presence were a big comfort to me, and helped me drift off to sleep night after night after night.

Until one fateful night early in 1982. I had dozed off during Carson, and awoke to a new, different show. The host was talking to his band leader about how the show had been on since the late 1950s. I was half asleep and totally puzzled: the host looked like he was in his late 20s or early 30s, so how could he have had a show back in the 50s? And if he’d really had a show since the 50s, shouldn’t he be in his late 60s? How could he look so young? And if the show had been on since the 50s, how come I’d never seen it before?

So at first it wasn’t the humor that got me to watch, it was the confusion. The host was David Letterman, and the band leader was Paul Schaffer. The show was Late Night with David Letterman, and of course it hadn’t been on since the 50s. It was brand new. And the thing that so confused me – Dave’s deadpan, earnest delivery of the “this show’s been on since, when, Paul? The late 50s?” line – totally sucked me in.

Young David Letterman

But there was more, so much more. There was Larry “Bud” Melman and his “Toast on a Stick” commercials. Dave would toss pencils through the “windows” behind him, but the sound effect of glass shattering would always come 3 seconds late. He’d call random people on the phone. He’d throw stuff off five storey towers, or run over it with a steamroller. He hassled a poor woman who ran a store called “Just Shades”. He’d don a suit made of Velcro and jump onto a Velcro-covered wall. Or a suit made from Alka Seltzer tablets and lower himself into a giant glass of water. And, in those early days, he’d have just about anybody as a guest, including an old lady who collected potato chips that resembled famous people.

As much as I loved The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson was just too cushy, too set in his ways. Carson was nice; Letterman would often appear antagonistic towards his guests. Carson was the consummate showman; Letterman often looked bored or uncomfortable. Carson had old farts like George Gobel and Charlie Callas on his show; Letterman had cutting-edge comedians like Steven Wright and Andy Kaufman. Barry Manilow performed on Carson; R.E.M. performed on Letterman:

Carson had the same “Art Fern” and “Carnac the Magnificent” sketches he’d been doing since the Spanish-American War. With Letterman, you never knew what was going to happen next:

In short, Carson was for my parents and grandparents’ generation, but Letterman was for my generation. Johnny Carson might have been The Beatles, but David Letterman was The Clash.

Nowadays, late night antics are commonplace. Jimmy Fallon, Seth Myers, Jimmy Kimmel, Conan O’Brien, James Corden and, until recently, Craig Ferguson… all those dudes – every last one of them – can do what they do today because Letterman did it 30 years ago. And with so many shows competing against YouTube, Netflix and the rest of the Internet, late night talk shows don’t have the cultural significance they did back then. To today’s teenagers, David Letterman might seem like a cranky old man; they might never know the man’s genius, and how he broke the damn mold of late night talk shows.

*     *     *

Those of you who remember Letterman’s NBC show might remember the “Viewer Mail” segment, where every Thursday he’d take a few minutes out of the show to read letters from viewers.

I’m proud to say that Dave read one of my letters on the air!

I was in sixth grade, and was an autograph hound. I had the autographs of tons of football and basketball players, and even Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Some of these I’d gotten in person, but many came through the mail. So it wasn’t much of a leap that I’d write Late Night and ask my favorite TV personality for an autograph.

I wrote a letter to Dave by hand one weekend and dropped it in the mail Monday afternoon. I hadn’t given any thought about my letter being on “Viewer Mail” at all, especially not that very Thursday. After all, it was just an autograph request, and it seemed almost impossible that my letter could get from Atlanta to New York, then be opened and read by staff by Thursday.

But there it was, on the air. In my letter, I asked Dave for an autographed picture, assuring him that such a picture would make me the coolest guy in my middle school. I was mostly sincere, but exaggerated my love a bit. It was a rule for people who collected autographs by mail: don’t just write and say “hey, send me an autographed picture”. Write something sincere. Tell them why you want their autograph.

And, of course, Letterman crapped all over my sincerity. After mispronouncing my name on the air (as “Cough-er”, not “Ko-fer”), he went on to say that I was wrong, that what I really needed to be the coolest guy in school was a nice car and a hot girlfriend. I know he was just going for laughs there… but COME ON, Dave! I said I was in middle school! I was, like, 11 or 12… way too young to have a car, and to be honest, I still thought girls were kind of yucky. My first real-life crush, on a girl with heartbreakingly beautiful cheekbones named Jenni, wouldn’t happen for another year.

The fallout was immediate. A teacher at my school saw the segment (Hi Mr. Hamrick!) and called my mom the next day to ask if she knew I was staying up so late. And if so, why was I allowed to stay up so late? I don’t remember how my mom replied, but I’m sure it was something along the lines of “man, I’ve tried to get that kid to go to bed before 11 for years now, but nothing seems to work.” When I got home from school that day, Mom gave me a half-hearted lecture about staying up too late, and how it looked bad for the family that Letterman read my letter on the air. But she knew. She knew if she took the TV out of my room I’d stay up and read instead. She knew if she took my books away I’d just hide some paper and stay up late creating new Dungeons & Dragons characters or something. Something, anything to keep me up at night. She’d read the letter I sent Dave and she knew it was just an autograph request, that I wasn’t trying to get the Department of Family and Childrens’ Services to show up on our front door. Still, for a brief time, I was the subject of a very mild version of fame: at school and in my neighborhood, I was “the kid who got Letterman to read a letter on-air”.

I waited for my autographed picture. A week, then another, then another went by. But nothing ever came. So I write Dave a second letter. I thanked him for reading my first letter on the air, and said that I thought his response was funny. But, ya know, I’d actually asked for an autographed picture, so… uh… could I actually, you know, get one?

A few days later, this showed up in the mail:

Letterman Autographed Photo
(click to embiggen)

Holy shit, I treasured that picture! I hung it with pride in my room for all to see. I had the neat story about how I’d gotten it to tell friends. And, as time passed, I enjoyed people’s reaction to it: “my God, he looks so young!” He looked young because he was young in the picture.

I watched Letterman throughout middle and high school. My friend Rich and I would sometimes watch on the phone together, and the next day we’d talk about the best bits. We repeated many of Letterman’s best lines for years. Dave had an episode where he tried to come up with a new catch phrase for the show. The winner was “they pelted us with rocks & garbage”, and Rich and I ran that into the ground.

Dave had the famous “Stupid Pet Tricks” segment, and before any of the pets came out, he’d plead with the audience: “Please, please remember folks, this is only an exhibition. This is not a competition. So please: no wagering”. Not only was it funny, I still use the “please, no wagering” line to this very day. My friends and I often go to restaurants that claim to have 400 different kinds of beer, but I seem to have the supernatural ability to pick beers they’re out of. It’s become a bit of an inside joke in my social circle. Friends will ask me which beer I’m going to order that they’re out of today. They joke about placing bets as to whether the place will have my beer or not. More than once I’ve asked for “no wagering” as the waitress comes up to take our orders.

I’ve gotta confess: I stopped watching late night shows for a long stretch of time. I hated that Dave moved to CBS in 1993, and my love affair with his show kind of fizzled out. But I didn’t switch to Leno or anything else. I just kind of ignored the entire genre completely until 2008, when the enthusiasm of Internet fans caused me to add Craig Ferguson to my DVR list. Then Conan got The Tonight Show and I enthusiastically started watching that. Then NBC fired Conan, and that just stuck in my craw. I became a Team Coco warrior, and I waved the flag for Conan until he got a show on TBS. And I watched that for a long while. But again, the love fizzled out. Ferguson quit. I hate Jimmy Fallon. Seth Myers doesn’t do anything for me. I like Jimmy Kimmel OK, I guess… but his show just never “clicked” with me. And the less said about James Corden the better.

None of those guys can hold a candle to what Letterman was in his prime. Sure, the rare times I watched Letterman these past few years it did seem like he was phoning it in. That doesn’t make for great entertainment, but that doesn’t take away from his legacy. Letterman changed American TV forever, and made me laugh – sometimes almost uncontrollably – more times than I could count. I wish him well in his retirement, and thank him for playing a part – however small – in making me me.

God bless, Dave!

“Utopia” as Art

Utopia is a British conspiracy thriller that originally aired on Channel 4 in the UK.

utopia_01

The series is about a small group of fans of a graphic novel called The Utopia Experiments, which some believe predicted many of the worst disasters of the 20th century, especially epidemics. While chatting on a fansite one day, someone logs in the chatroom claiming to have a copy of the mysterious, much discussed but never seen sequel. The group, who only knew each other in cyberspace, agrees to meet the man in meatspace. This piques the interest of a mysterious cabal known as “The Network”. Will the group be able to figure out the hidden meaning of the sequel before The Network can hunt them down? And why is The Network so interested in a graphic novel anyway?

So far, it sounds like an interesting, if conventional, premise for a TV series. But Utopia is different. For one thing, the writing is good and the acting is solid. So that’s nice. But with Utopia, it’s all about sight and sound. Chilean-born composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer provided the show’s quirky, at times almost atonal, soundtrack:

But really, with this show, it’s all about the camera. It’s shot in a 21:9 aspect ratio, making it feel like a film. The show is chock-full of lovely long shots:

The series is a full-blown riot of hypersaturated color. I hate to sound like a film student, but it’s true: the depth of field and mise en scène is just… breathtaking:

For the record, these are just crappy screen caps from a YouTube promo. The actual show is just beautiful, much more like an artistic thriller than a mere TV show. A bit of warning, though: it’s very dark and very violent.

If you haven’t seen the show yet, you really owe it to yourself to track it down via onDemand or Blu-Ray or whatever. It’s really, really well done, and – as I’ve mentioned a hundred times already – it’s just… amazing to look at.

“Mad Men”… insanity?

It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything about Mad Men on this site… and that’s a shame. So let’s fix that!

aaa-26

One thing I’ve always loved about the show is the bizarre lengths the producers go to to make it authentic. We all know some of the more famous examples, like how the show’s “costumes” include things like socks or stockings and underwear, even in scenes where characters aren’t going to show them. So every one of Joan or Peggy’s panty lines are from underwear based on actual 1960s designs. And then there’s the time Lane Pryce shook a handful of change and the sound was distinctly the sound of pre-1965 silver coins.

But here are a few borderline insane attentions to detail you might not know:

– One of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s clients is a fictitious company called “Sugarberry Ham”.  In the season four premiere,  Peggy and Pete come up with a viral marketing stunt – hiring actresses to fight over hams in a grocery store – to get the recently-departed company to come back to the agency. You’d think finding a “historically accurate” canned ham would be easy… but no. Matt Weiner, the show’s creator and runner, rejected every single canned ham prop master Ellen Freund found… and she literally searched the whole world for the “right” canned ham. Freund was at her wit’s end, and was THIS CLOSE to calling a ham manufacturer to have a canned ham made to Weiner’s exact specifications. Luckily for her, another researcher found evidence that some of the canned hams they’d already found were appropriate for the time period. (Source)

– There’s another story that Matthew Weiner came to the set one day and obsessed over a bowl of fruit. Fruit of today is apparently much larger than fruit of the past, and shinier, since many types of fruit often get a coat of wax before shipping. So Weiner ordered a poor intern to go out and find smaller, duller fruit. (Source)

aaa-8

– Ever looked at the ice cubes on Mad Men? For one thing, the show uses actual ice cubes instead of more common acrylic cubes that last much longer while filming. But that’s not all: the show has – yes, you guessed it – historically accurate ice cubes. For scenes set in people’s homes, the show makes cubes from vintage metal ice cube trays people would have had in their homes in the 1960s. But for shots outside the home – like restaurants and bars – the show has an agreement with a “specialist ice producer” in Los Angeles to make authentic one inch square cubes. (Source)

– Here’s perhaps the craziest story of all: the set designers needed a bunch of fluorescent bulbs for the Sterling Cooper set. So they bought several types, and found a few that appeared to match the required time period. So they placed an order for 800 such bulbs… but only after they arrived did anyone notice that the interiors of the bulbs had modern components not available in the early 1960s. The team made frantic phone calls to any supplier they could find, but could not get their hands on enough bulbs. So Movie-Tone, a lighting supply specialist for the movies – stopped production, retooled their manufacturing plant, and made all the bulbs the show needed. The last shipment arrived on the first day of filming. (Source)

Why US Networks Remake Foreign Shows

If there’s one thing I see over and over again in TV message boards, it’s this: “why does [US network] have to remake [some foreign show]? Why can’t they just air the original??”

The answer to that question is the answer to almost every question: money.

As you may know, viewership of the Big Four broadcast networks is down. Waaaay down. Part of this is due to the exploding number of TV channels. Where ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC once had viewers all to themselves, they now have to compete with USA, FX, AMC and others. Another part of it is DVRs: Neilsen counts people who watch shows within three days of it airing (called “Live Plus 3”, or L3) and those who watch it within seven days (called “Live Plus 7”, or L7). But networks only care about the L3 ratings, so if you DVR a show on Monday but watch it on Friday, you may as well not watch it at all… from a ratings perspective. And, of course, you have the younger generation, who are more likely to pass the time watching YouTube videos over network TV.

Point is, the days of the Big Four networks having a captive audience of 300 million people are long over. Networks need as many eyeballs as possible, and foreign shows don’t help. A certain percentage of Americans simply won’t watch a show where people have foreign accents, no matter how great the show might be. I don’t know what that percentage is, but even if it’s a little as 10%, that’d cripple a show out of the gate. It’s like… atheist politicians. In several surveys, 53% of Americans have said that they would have “major reservations” about voting for an atheist presidential candidate. So, a hypothetical  atheist candidate would have to win almost 100% of the remaining 47% of the vote, which is almost impossible. So you don’t see foreign shows on US networks for the same reason you don’t see a lot of atheist presidential candidates: they’re set up to lose.

Then there are cultural issues. Perhaps African-American and Hispanic viewers think a show like Downton Abbey isn’t relevant to them. But if you were to take almost exactly the same scripts, but set it in a rich American’s house… then maybe that’s something they’d watch.

And all of us, even those of us who like foreign shows, have almost certainly come across references and jokes in foreign shows that go over our heads… kind of like the Grey Poupon joke in Wayne’s World.

There were a series of commercials for Grey Poupon mustard in the 80s where a rich man in a Rolls-Royce would be eating in the back of his car, and another rich guy would pull up at a light and ask if he had any Grey Poupon, ‘cos I guess Grey Poupon is mustard for rich people:

In Wayne’s World, Wayne and his gang pull up to a stoplight in their  piece of crap car next to a Rolls-Royce and ask for Grey Poupon:

Thing is, those commercials never aired in France, so when Wayne’s World was dubbed into French, Wayne says “you… you would look good in a Fiat Uno”, parodying a then-popular series of French ads for an inexpensive car.

*     *     *

But when I said it all comes down to money, I really mean it all comes down to money.

If NBC had chosen to buy the rights to the original British version of The Office, the only money NBC could have earned would be from running commercials during the show.

If, however, NBC chose to buy the rights to remake the original (which is much cheaper than buying the rights to the finished product, by the way), then NBC could elect to have its own production company – Universal – to make the show. In this way, NBC would make money from:

– Selling commercials that run during the show.
– Off-network syndication sales.
– Foreign sales.
– Licensing to airlines and cruise ships.
– Licensing to cable companies for OnDemand viewing.
– Licensing to streaming services like Netflix and Hulu.
– Selling commercials for NBC.com streaming.
– Home video sales (DVD\Blu-Ray).
– Merchandise sales.
– (Possible) licensing for spin-offs and movies.

For NBC, the difference between airing the original Office and making their own was literally a billion dollars. Plus, most British shows only have 6-8 episodes per season. Americans are used to much more than that. Despite its legendary status in the comedy world, there were only 12 episodes of the original Office (plus two specials). That’s less than single US season! When the US version turned out to be a hit, NBC was able to make 201 episodes, something they wouldn’t be able to do with the original.

I agree that many of these remakes suck. Two of my favorite shows of the 2000s – the British Life on Mars and the Australian Rake – were dismal failures as American remakes. But I’m not sure how much of that was due just to them being remade, or to them being remade by broadcast networks. If you’ve ever seen the original Rake, you know there’s way too much sex and drugs and swearing for a US network. Had HBO or Showtime – or even FX – remade it, then it could have been much, much better. And while the British Life On Mars wasn’t afraid to show people smoking and drinking to excess… like people did back in the early 70s… the US network seemed to shy away from that, lending the whole thing an inauthentic, Disneyfied air.

But really, folks… it’s just TV. The reason I posted this today was because some folks on a message board were ranting about Gracepoint, the new Fox remake of the British show Broadchurch. Yes, Broadchurch is a really great show. But it’s not some priceless, immutable cultural icon. I’m sure the British version will go down in history as the better of the two… but there’s no need to get your panties in a wad about it.

2014 TV at the Half

Wow… what a terrible year it’s been for TV so far. I’ve looked at Wikipedia and several TV websites just to make sure I didn’t miss anything.. and it would appear that I haven’t: there just hasn’t been a lot of quality new stuff on TV so far.

Here’s my mid-year list of the best new scripted shows on TV. After that, there’s a brief essay about new shows that tried and failed and some awards. So let’s do this thing:

The Best New Shows of 2014

#12 Turn (AMC) – Spies in Revolutionary War America? HELL YES! What’s not to love about a show like that? It’s like AMC made a show just for me. Except… “interestingly-interpreted” history aside, this show is slow, like many AMC shows are, and the premise of the show – spying – seems to be forgotten from time to time in favor of character development. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: character development is a crucial part of any good show. But, at times Turn seemed too much like AMC’s other spy show, Rubicon: you wonder what happened to the premise. However, I put this on the “best-of” list because of an interview I read with the show’s creators: it seems like they have heard our concerns, and season 2 should be a much improved show.

AMC's "Turn"

#11 True Detective (HBO) – Beautifully shot. Expertly acted. Carefully written. And then it all falls apart at the end. What is it with modern anthology series? ‘Cos this show TOTALLY reminds me of American Horror Story, and how AHS always starts off pretty well, but limps towards a lame finale every single time. True Detective could have been the hands-down favorite for best new show of the year… possibly even best new show of the decade. But the conventional, formulaic ending left me cold. It’s like the first 7 episodes were almost unbelievably good, but the last one… was like something out of a direct-to-DVD movie, Or like the writers quit with 10 pages left to write in the script. Or something.

HBO's "True Detective"

#10 Silicon Valley (HBO) – This new series from Mike Judge – creator of Beavis and Butthead, King of the Hill and Office Space – is pretty damn amusing. It’s almost like The Big Bang Theory for computer nerds like myself. While a knowledge of the IT industry and programming is helpful in understanding the laffs, it’s not required. Sadly, this is because the show, awesome though it is, seems to rely on standard stereotypes, especially the “IT nerd afraid of his own shadow”. One nerd is terrified of his possible success, Another is afraid of girls. Another – the more down to earth one – is apparently afraid of being sober. Still, this show delivers the funny more than any sitcom I’ve seen in a while. It’s definitely worth a watch!

HBO's "Silicon Valley"

#9 Mr. Sloane (Sky Atlantic) – I’ll admit it: I am a sucker for anything with Nick Frost of Spaced, Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. In this series, Frost plays accountant Jeremy Sloane (“with an ‘e’, like Sloane Square”). Jeremy is having a terrible 1969: his wife has left him, he was fired from his accounting job, and his nosy elderly neighbor lets herself in whenever she wants, which always seems to be the wrong time. Jeremy has just about had it with life all around. But then he meets Robin (Ophelia Lovibond), a free-spirited American hippie who changes his life… but just as things start to take off with Robin, Sloane’s estranged wife Janet (Olivia Colman) returns, throwing everything up in the air. Will Jeremy move on with his new American love? Will he go back to his wife? And will he finally ditch his terrible high school friends? This show didn’t get a lot of love from British TV sites, but I really liked it. It was heartfelt and bittersweet, while being funny at the same time. Sure, Sloane’s a loser… but he’s a loser anyone can identify with.

Sky Atlantic's "Mr Sloane"

#8 Happy Valley (BBC) – Sarah Lancashire stars as Catherine Cawood, a police sergeant in an idyllic town in Yorkshire. But life isn’t as pretty as the setting would seem. Drugs are flooding the town, and Cawood has her own personal tragedy: the suicide of her daughter after being “raped” by a man named Tommy Lee Royce (played by James Norton; while Cawood’s daughter and Royce did have sex, it’s not entirely clear whether he actually raped her or not). Cawood finds that Royce has been released from prison, and she makes it her duty to track his every move. Little does she know that Royce is a pawn in a much bigger game. It takes the police a while to figure it all out, but in the end, many smaller crimes are part of a much larger conspiracy. Will they be able to solve the case in time? This series got rave reviews from most critics, but for one thing: it has a couple of pretty brutal scenes of violence against women. Here’s my take: while it’s true that British TV seems to have a newfound fetish for hurting women… so what? Was it OK for cop shows to show men suffering for decades, but somehow it’s a problem NOW because it’s women? Can we have female police officers in real life, but not show actual violence they might encounter on our TVs? Also, and this is just me nitpicking, but why did they use “cannabis” as the “evil drug” in this series? They could have used crack or meth to be the “evil drug turning our fair citizens into zombies”, but no… they blamed skunk instead? Ooookkkkaaayyy.

BBC's "Happy Valley"

Continue reading 2014 TV at the Half

Subtle Humor?

I have been a Georgia Tech fan my whole life. As I explained in this post, one of the school’s oldest and most cherished traditions is that of a fictitious student named George P. Burdell.

Created as a prank in 1927 when a student accidentally received two enrollment forms, “Burdell” went on to get a bachelor’s degree from Tech, as well as a master’s. Burdell went on to serve on many USAAF bombers and USN submarines in WWII, was listed as a member of Mad Magazine’s board of directors from 1969-1981, was a production assistant at South Park Studios, and, for a brief period in 1991, was the name and signature Kraft Foods used on rebate-refund checks sent to consumers.

That’s what made this week’s episode of The Blacklist so amusing. The episode had an aerial shot of a university:

vlcsnap-2014-04-23-12h55m14s65

which is actually Georgia Tech. But what name did the writers give the school?

vlcsnap-2014-04-23-12h55m23s7

tee-hee!!

Is it just me, or…

Am I the only person driven to the brink of insanity by this?

This week’s episode of Intelligence (a new CBS series featuring Josh Holloway from Lost, aptly described by some as “Chuck without the humor”) opens in London:

intelligence_01

The very next scene – the first actual scene after the opening shot of London – is of a guy walking through a door:

intelligence_01a

What’s wrong with this picture? I’ll give you a hint:

intelligence_02

OK, the screencap is a little dark, and maybe you can’t see the detail. So let me use the old CSI tactic of zooming in and enhancing it:

intelligence_03

Yep… even though we’re supposed to be London, the set has North American electrical outlets. It might seem nitpicky to some, but it’s the FIRST SCENE of the episode, and the outlets are RIGHT THERE!

This little “flub” also struck the season premiere of Psych a couple weeks ago: leads Shawn and Gus went to England so the show could do a Guy Ritchie parody. And here’s what happened:

psych_01

Sigh.

psych_02

And Psych took it further by showing the “English countryside”… which apparently looks a lot like British Columbia:

psych_03

GET IT TOGETHER, SET DESIGNERS!