Archive for the 'tv commentary' Category

I Killed

I Killed: true stories of the road from America’s top comics compiled by Ritch Shydner and Mark Schiff. “Make me laugh!” “Entertain me!” That’s been the unrelenting demand from audiences throughout time and across cultures. Although today’s jesters need not fear for their heads if their jokes fall flat in front of royalty, as these stories from over 200 practitioners of stand-up show, they can still worry about their physical safety as well as their psychological balance. I love watching comics on television doing their acts, but I realize it is a much sanitized version of what happens every night at hundreds of clubs around the country. This book presents the raw images and the unfiltered language of life on the road. From before there were comedy clubs, through their heyday and up to current times comics have been scrounging for meals, putting down hecklers, nailing groupies and waitresses, and wrangling with owners and managers over getting paid. Not all these anecdotes are funny, but they do present a broad and realistic view of the business. Many of the stories are similar, but if you do get bored after the first fifty or so entries, I recommend skipping ahead to the last ten pages where the tales of performing for troops overseas, subbing for Johnny Carson, traveling with family and working a funeral are the most poignant of the book.

For a look at a different sector of American comedy business, check out Rob Long’s fictionalized tales of being a sitcom writer in Hollywood. Also, PBS is currently running a six-hour miniseries on American comedy called Make Em Laugh with interviews of hundreds of the best in the business.


My name on television

Have you ever wondered how characters get named on television shows? What would it be like to share the name of a famous character like Richie Cunningham, Sam Malone or Adrian Monk? I have a fairly common first name, but my last name can be spelled several ways and my family’s is one of the more unusual ones. I’ve seen the other variations a few times with different first names, but imagine my surprise when I heard my whole name coming out of the set earlier this week. I expected to be disappointed once again, but there in the background was a plaque with the exact spelling. Wow.

Unfortunately, my namesake was a murder victim who remained unseen until his decomposing body was found dumped in a freezer. He did briefly come to life in a flashback showing his murder by bludgeoning. Even in life, he wasn’t that sympathetic a person. He was a workaholic who ignored his family to the point of being unconcerned about the affair his wife was having with one of his employees and he contributed to his son-in-law’s gambling addiction by hiring him to work with “whales” at his casino.

Still, that was my name on screen and since I don’t plan on a reality show appearance anytime soon, it will probably be the only time it happens.

Summer television recap

With Labor Day approaching, it’s time for a summer television recap. I don’t go much for reality programs like Survivor or Big Brother. Neither do the dancing shows or the contests like Project Runway hold any appeal. That said I do like Kathy Griffin’s My Life on the D-List, though others don’t find her funny at all. This season wasn’t as good as previous ones, although there were some emotional moments such as her building of a school library in Mexico and her visit to Walter Reed Hospital and Rehab Center outside Washington, DC. The best part of the show is seeing the unusual gigs she accepts: being MC at a Furry convention (big, hairy gay men), or being the entertainment on a plane to Australia or for a group on a private island. Life as a comedian, especially hers, is just weird. It’s also interesting to see the effort she puts into creating her show, how she tries to learn about her audience beforehand to tailor her material accordingly, how she struggles at times to make the elusive connection between her sense of humor and the collective room’s funny bone, and how personally she takes it when she fails. The behind-the-scenes look at her personal life, her elderly mom, and her assistants is also fascinating.

USA network is still the place for summer scripted programming. On the Emmy-winning show Monk, Tony Shaloub and Traylor Howard continue to be an intriguing pair and the show’s writers perfectly blend humor and complex mysteries while putting the former police detective in uncomfortable situations which amplify his long list of neuroses, though they could make better use of the San Francisco setting. The death of Stanley Kamel, who played Monk’s therapist, could have been a devastating blow, but Hector Elizondo has stepped in quite well and will only get better with time.

The other USA show worth noting is Burn Notice with fellow UMass alumnus Jeffrey Donovan in the lead role as a spy abandoned by his covert agency (given a burn notice) and stranded in Miami. As he attempts to discover the reasons for and the people behind his change of status, he uses his spy skills to rescue people in trouble (imagine a combination of McGyver and the 1985-89 CBS series The Equalizer) with the assistance of an ex-girlfriend, played by one of my favorites, Gabrielle Anwar, and an ex-Navy Seal colleague, played by Bruce Campbell. Last year’s surprise hit, The Starter Wife, starring another favorite, Debra Messing, returns in October, probably delayed due to last year’s writer’s strike.

But the best show on television this summer was Carrier on PBS. This ten-part series documents life on board the USS Nimitz air craft carrier during its 2005 deployment from San Diego to Iraq and back. The film crew was given unbelievable access throughout the ship and interviewed hundreds of Navy and Marine personnel, from the Strike Group commander, Rear Admiral Peter H. Daly, to the guys who dispose of the trash. This is definitely not a propaganda piece for recruiters as many of the negative aspects of life in the armed forces were presented: the frustration with the daily monotony, the agony of the harsh discipline, the sadness and anger at being separated from family and loved ones, the uncertainty of the value of orders from superiors and the mission in general. But these are balanced by the descriptions of the respect everyone shows for hard work, the camaraderie felt between crew members, and the acknowledgement by many, especially the young men and women new to the service, that if they had stayed in civilian life, they would be in dead-end jobs, in prison, or worse. Religion on board ship, the presence of women on a predominantly-male combat vessel, shore leaves in Muslim countries, differences between officer’s privileges and responsibilities and those of lower ranked crew members and the difficulties of returning home after the isolation and separation from families are all dealt with over the course of the ten hours. The show has finished airing, but the equally impressive web site has lots of additional information about the ship and how the show was produced. Definitely check out the scout diary in which the directors describe their first visits to the ship in order to prepare bringing 17 filmmakers on board for six months of shooting.

The Protest Games

Isn’t it ironic that with the Olympic Games being hosted by a government that suppresses dissent by its citizens and refused all demonstrations in designated areas, these Games have been filled with protests both large and small? It began with complaints about the use of lip-synching and computer graphics at the opening ceremonies and continued with charges of underage gymnasts, tennis players not regulating themselves in a gentlemanly manner, deliberate head hunting in baseball, and incorrect touch pad technology at the swimming venue. Then there were the racially insensitive poses by Spanish athletes. And a quick review of Olympic news stories also reveals protests in sailing, team handball and track and field. Finally, I’m not accusing anyone of steroid use, but the level of rage and antics at the wrestling, boxing, and taekwondo venues seemed to reach new heights. As Aaron Beard of the Associated Press correctly summarized in his column, “athletes are adding ‘gripe, fuss, complain’ to the Olympic motto of ‘swifter, higher, stronger.’” Some of the players and coaches have offered conciliatory comments after cooling off from the heat of the moment. Others have actually been vindicated through the appeals process. In the end, all this bickering seems infantile compared to the real world violence taking place with the Russian army in Georgia and Abkhazia, a mere 25 kilometers away from Sochi, the host city of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Four Brothers on TNT

Four Brothers on TNT. If there is such a thing as a complex “revenge” film, then this one qualifies. It begins as a simple story of four brothers who return home after their foster mother is killed in an apparent robbery turned murder, but they soon discover that appearances can be deceiving. Mark Wahlberg leads the multi-ethnic group as they navigate the twists and turns of Detroit’s underworld and corruption in search of the responsible party. In the edited-for-television version, most of the foul language is cut (imdb says that the f-word was used 62 times), but there is still a lot of violence, mostly gunplay, that may not be suitable for younger audiences (and was too much for both Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who, according to imdb, turned down the role that eventually went to Wahlberg). If one can accept the level of violence, viewers are rewarded with decent acting and an interesting plot with a satisfying ending.

Around the world in 80 rounds

Around the world in 80 rounds by David Wood. Go ahead. I dare you to follow in David Wood’s footsteps. Sell your condo and your car. Put everything else in storage except a travel bag, a laptop and your trusty (well, sometimes trusty) set of golf clubs. Then head out on a round-the-world adventure to play the most remote golf courses on the planet. Not quite ready to take on that much risk, or maybe the spouse and kids, not to mention the boss, would like your presence nearby during the next twelve months, then take a couple days to read about this fantastic journey of Wood’s instead.

Wood was uniquely qualified for this trip as a Seattle-based professional writer and bachelor with vast travel experience and a seven handicap. He spent two months researching courses, itineraries, U.S. State Department travel warnings and getting a slew of inoculations before boarding a plane for South America. Sixty thousand miles and twenty-two countries later, he returned with a collection of humorous and inspiring stories from Argentina to Norway, Australia to Zimbabwe.

Each chapter is a part travel log adventure with tales of luxurious train rides, cramped buses, and bouts of altitude sickness; part sociological essay on the fascinating people he meets from caddies and golfers of all ages and skill levels to fellow travelers and bureaucrats who helped or hindered his journey; and part golf exaltation with descriptions of specific rounds and holes and the wonderful views that presented themselves from the tee boxes and greens. On occasion, Wood repeats the same phrases a wee bit too often and seems preoccupied describing the physical beauty of the female population of some countries rather than the natural landmarks, but he doesn’t revel in self-promotion at any point and in general, there’s a realism to each adventure that puts readers in the story.

Wood heaps continuous praise on the members of the world-wide golfing brotherhood, though not necessarily on all the courses. Almost everyone, when learning of his quest, has a suggestion for another course to play or a person to meet and would frequently call ahead to ease his entry. As a result, Wood, though repeatedly proclaiming his love of public golf, seems to spend most of his time on the finest courses each country could provide, many of which had armed guards at the gates.

The book does include a global map showing most of the stops along the way, but an appendix with a more detailed itinerary including dates and information on each course would have been helpful.

If the book inspires you to attempt your own golf travel expedition, you might try watching either the syndicated Good Time Golf or The Wandering Golfer on the Fine Living network for suggestions. And remember, at the Elephant Hills Golf Club divots caused by a warthog’s tusks allow for a free drop, but if it’s just a hoofprint, then you have to play it as it lies.

Million Dollar Password on CBS

Million Dollar Password on CBS. I used to watch this game show as much as possible growing up, or at least I did whenever I was home in the morning and not in school. The latest version premiered Sunday night with Regis Philbin as host and Rachel Ray and Neil Patrick Harris as the celebrity guest players for the first of six summer episodes. After reading several reviews of the show, some positive and others not so much so, I’d say I am most in agreement with Joel Keller of it’s tough to please old fans of game shows and attract new fans as well. The head-to-head part of the show is much more similar to Pyramid than to Password as “civilian” contestants try to get as many words as possible in thirty seconds with each celebrity, once giving clues and once receiving, for a total of four rounds. The contestant with the most right answers moves on to the bonus round. Thirty seconds is not much time and no one got more than four words correct in a round in sixteen tries. Words are not shared as in the earlier versions and so teams cannot “steal” from their opponents, a strategic aspect I am sorry to see eliminated. The bonus round consists of a series of ninety second trials in which five words must be correctly solved. With each successive trial, the prize gets bigger, but the words get harder. Here, ninety seconds is plenty of time, but contestants are allowed only three clues per word, so choosing good clues is vital to winning. At this point it would be easy to make a clever inside joke and describe the flashing lights, tight close ups and loud music that are staples of modern game show production as a FIASCO I could do without, but seriously the biggest problem I noticed was noise from the studio audience itself. Several times, applause following a successful word made it difficult for players to hear the next clue, something necessary in a game of communication. However, the heart of the game, finding good words to use as clues for your partner, remains the same, and therefore, viewers at home can play along quite easily.

Contact me

ascot6361 at

RSS feed