Room & Bird

September 18, 2017

Most of us have our lists of favorite movies, and I’d wager no two lists of, say, the top 25 are exactly alike. However, we’re less inclined to make lists of the worst movies we’ve ever seen, because it’s our natural tendency to try and forget ’em, despite the best efforts of the gang at MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. Today I have two for you, so beautifully bad that they break through the looking glass: I expect you will thoroughly enjoy watching each of them. They’re both available to rent on Netflix, and they’ve both been heckled by my MST3K-veteran pals at RiffTrax, but you don’t need their help. Just hit PLAY, sit back, and ponder the depths of determination and delirium that got these two particular movies made.

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I first heard of THE ROOM in 2010, seven years after its release, by reading a Harper’s piece by Tom Bissell. Roughly halfway through, I had to start reading again very carefully from the beginning, just to make sure I wasn’t the victim of a practical joke (the issue date was August, not April!). For what Bissell describes as a “post-camp cult film” had actually attracted a devoted midnight-screening audience since its release, the same kind of groundswell which propelled THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW — which I must emphasize is a legitimate movie with professional levels of production and performance, in stark contrast to THE ROOM — only with slathers of irony, akin to putting a tablespoon of wasabi into your mouth. I’ll try to describe it for you, but I won’t get any closer than Bissell’s best line: “It is the movie that an alien who has never seen a movie might make after having had movies thoroughly explained to him.”

The auteur of THE ROOM is a man who calls himself “Tommy Wiseau.” He desperately wants to be a movie star like his idol James Dean, though he has a slightly vampiric look and speaks somewhat broken English with a distancing Eastern European accent. (To hear Tommy’s voice for yourself without seeing THE ROOM, call the film’s hotline at (323) 654-6192.) After frustrating failures in scene classes and fruitless attempts to get auditions, he writes a “play” intended for the stage — which begins with an “external shot.” Ladies and gentlemen, meet Tommy Wiseau.

THE ROOM is an effort to produce an intense personal drama about a love triangle, but it is written, directed and lead-acted with such monumental incompetence that it turns in upon itself and becomes a thing of fascination. The writer has no idea how to fashion a single scene that makes any sense, let alone a feature-length plot. The star actor can barely remember the simplest line, forcing the production to use the first acceptable take it can possibly manage. The director is completely clueless about any aspect of staging, camera movement, continuity, or guiding a performance. Tommy Wiseau is the diametrical opposite of a natural. He makes Ed Wood look like Orson Welles.

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If it all sounds like something you’d be better off avoiding, please read THE DISASTER ARTIST, a book by featured actor Greg Sestero and journalist Bissell, and you’ll be dying to see THE ROOM. As well you should. In fact, you might want to do it before December, when a feature film based on the book appears, directed by and starring James Franco as Tommy. (He reportedly stayed in character between takes, in a bit of warped good sense.)

The book — and, I presume, Franco’s movie — cuts back and forth between THE ROOM’s hilarious production phase and Tommy’s backstory, or at least as much as can be gleaned by Sestero, his somewhat reluctant best friend in America. Even to those who know him best, Tommy is a man of mystery. His very age is in dispute. As the author well understands, those few crumbs Tommy drops about his earlier life have been provided by an unreliable narrator. Yet these same crumbs are vital to our curiosity: as Sestero writes, THE ROOM is “so incomprehensible that you find yourself compelled to watch it over and over again. You become desperate to learn how (if) on earth it was conceived: Who made it, and for what purpose?”

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Tommy’s one-sheet (l.) and James Franco’s fake for the DISASTER ARTIST movie.

THE ROOM is a product of almost superhuman determination. It is also a vanity project. Tommy got rich enough somehow — the source of his money remains unclear — to bankroll the $6 million budget personally, and he goes to extremes and beyond. What tugs at you while the film runs is that the crew behind the scenes are evidently real movie people: the camera’s in focus and the sound is clear. It’s just that they, along with a handful of not-untalented actors who have been sucked into the project’s maw, have absolutely nothing to work with.

They were, however, working with Tommy’s own equipment, purchased — not rented, as anyone else would do — from Birns & Sawyer to the tune of a million bucks. Cameras, lenses, Arriflex lighting equipment. For reasons we still do not understand, Tommy decided to simultaneously shoot THE ROOM in 35mm and digital HD. He ordered a mount that could hold both cameras at the same time. That meant hiring two different crews and using two different lighting systems that did not agree with each other, constantly forcing the DPs (Tommy ran through two disgusted cinematographers and finished the film with a third) to split the difference. Tommy wanted to be the first filmmaker to shoot this way. He never pondered why nobody else had preceded him.

The ROOM shoot is studded with examples of such amazing idiocy, but as you work your way through the book and get to know Tommy a little better out of context, he gains a human dimension, much like the obsessed Wisconsin filmmaker Mark Borchardt of the documentary AMERICAN MOVIE. The difference is that Borchardt has no money — and his knowledge of what he needs to do on set may be crude, but it’s still light-years beyond Tommy’s.

THE DISASTER ARTIST ends with the world premiere of THE ROOM, which of course bombed in a house Tommy had papered, then went on to gross $1800 — yes, that is four figures — during its original two-week LA engagement. But two young film students noticed it, encouraged others to come — as I hope you discover, it is mesmerizing in its surreal way — and before long alternative comedians like David Cross and Patton Oswalt, and eventually the general public, became believers. At midnight screenings, they use ritualistic synched reactions like a ROCKY HORROR crowd. The flick has played and is playing all over the world: Tommy has even started referring to it as a comedy. Against all odds, he has managed to become famous.

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I can only hope that in the movie version Franco treats Tommy with the empathy he deserves and plays him as something broader than a cartoonish object of ridicule. Meanwhile, I urge you to enter THE ROOM for yourself, making sure to pick up your jaw off the floor at regular intervals, and swirl, sniff, and savor. You are experiencing the awesome power of sheer will.

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“You are tearing me apart, Lisa!” Tommy’s James Dean moment.

In January 2009, I was walking down Park City, Utah’s Main Street during the Sundance Film Festival when a…car…festooned with phony crows and feathers, with loudspeakers broadcasting bird calls, drove by, attracting gawkers wherever it went. On the side of the car was a banner reading

BIDEMIC
SHOCK AND TERROR

I would learn to watch for this car, which made its lonely path down Main Street dozens of times during the fest. It was promoting an ultra-low-budget picture which we later found out was actually called BIRDEMIC: SHOCK AND TERROR. That’s right, the signage on the promotional car, the only way this film’s producers could possibly position themselves before the Sundance crowd (or so they hoped), misspelled its own title. But was it really a stroke of genius instead? We all noticed it. We all silently added the poor missing R.

Then I saw the movie. It was not a stroke of genius.

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It was easy for director James Nguyen to overlook the typo, because like Tommy, English is not his native tongue. A Vietnam-born software salesman, Nguyen shot the self-financed BIRDEMIC on weekends over seven months, then spent several years looking for distribution. Also like Tommy, Nguyen fervently believed that he was producing a great work of art. Inspired by Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS (and, he says, APOCALYPSE NOW), Nguyen contemplated a romantic thriller with an ecological message. What he achieved was instead a mess — but, again like Tommy, the sheer ineptitude becomes entertaining all by itself.

Let’s start with the “birdemic,” though Nguyen doesn’t. In fact, the first bird attack won’t appear until about halfway through. But it is a master class in preposterous visual effects. Before that comes a romance between a Silicon Valley software salesman (!) and a wannabe model, utterly barren of chemistry or even nuance. At first it’s curious, then it becomes fascinating. Meanwhile, ecological anomalies begin happening behind their backs. Finally, when the tension reaches fever pitch — shock and terror! Or so we’ve been promised.

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“Can they get in?”

Nguyen also shares with Tommy a gobsmacking inability to even comprehend, much less explore, the language of film. Scene-setting is done using a series of slow pans and crane shots, like you might see in a better movie, but they continue long after the scene is set, eons after it’s been nailed frickin down. When bids — excuse me, birds — mass outside the motel where they’ve just spent a snuggly night, the girl (who is actually movie-star-pretty but gets no help from the script, the director, or the rest of the cast) peeks out from the drawn curtains to see an eagle hovering outside. She goes back to the bed to sit by the boy. “Can they get in?” she asks. He stares at the shut curtains, moves his focus back and forth for a few seconds, and replies, “Not at the moment.” He hasn’t seen any birds. Rather, his motivation is, that’s what it says in the script.

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A “bird” “attack.”

The bird scenes are the pièce de résistance. Cheap video matte effects are re-used to the point of redundancy: a flight of birds travels from left to right, then the same effects shot is flopped and the bird group comes back in the reverse direction. Identical hovering birds are liberally scattered throughout. And these birds dive to the sound of turbines and spit fire or something, at which point the buildings below them emit what looks a little like computer-generated smoke and fire but couldn’t fool an attentive five-year-old.

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“Birds” setting “fire” to some “buildings.”

I’m aware that this all sounds terrible, but like THE ROOM, BIRDEMIC: SHOCK AND TERROR passes through a creative portal that, say, MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE — the worst movie I’d ever encountered until I saw THE ROOM — can’t penetrate. MANOS has nothing to offer but boredom and its makers are clearly passionless. But Tommy Wiseau and James Nguyen actually think they’re shooting terrific movies when they just might be in over their heads. Their stoic struggles actually do wind up legitimately entertaining the audience — two miracles which prove that thing called “movie magic” is hardly monopolized by the suits in Hollywood. They’re each sui generis, each tons of fun. Do yourself a favor. Two favors.

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3/14/18: As I hoped, the movie plays Tommy’s story for laughs but remains empathetic, even letting him end in triumph at the world premiere as the discomfited crowd starts giggling and finally erupts in applause (this did not happen: it was a long slow slog to notoriety). The most amazing part is a post-flick sequence in which a split screen runs genuine ROOM scenes alongside Franco’s recreations: god knows how many times his cast and crew rolled the original to get the pacing just right. Just before that, Tommy gets his own moment on the big screen, the one he dreamed about.

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Tomorrow Is Another Day

April 1, 2017

donaldtrump_aap_030814.jpgAfter a great deal of anguished thought, I have a confession, and I hope you don’t take it the wrong way. I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that resistance won’t work. I’m sitting the rest of this presidency out.

President Trump — appalling that I even have to write that — is nevertheless ensconced in the office, and he has his pals all around him. They’re every bit as inexperienced and incompetent as he is, but it’s still the @realWhiteHouse, and there’s nothing we can do about that.

Remember that at this moment he and his minions have their thumbs on the scale everywhere. All three branches are his: executive, legislative and soon judicial, once he can get off his ass and pack a few district courts.

In case you’re gloating over the Trumpcare flameout, don’t. This repeal-and-replace business isn’t over. Tea Partiers hate Obama and anything he ever touched more than they love their constituents, even the sick ones. Especially the sick ones.

Legislators are already salivating over the tax code that they’ll soon be able to rewrite any way they want to. Guess who’ll get their taxes cut. You got it! But you can’t do diddly squat to stop it!

Foreign policy? Who needs it? The most powerful guy in the world is the only one who can’t get his “mind” around the fact that we’re interconnected. It’s not just World War III you should be freaked about. It’s the slow erosion of the US’s position as leader of the free world. There’s no more moral high ground. Soon there’ll be no more economic high ground as the world’s brightest minds, the keys to our future, gradually choose to base their careers in a place where they feel welcome. Sad!

Other countries are not quaking with fear over Donald Trump. They’re laughing at us, and enjoying a big bad bit of schadenfreude as Prissy Prom Queen America finally gets what’s coming to it. Their sainted Constitution has finally bit Yanks in the ass. They got screwed by their own rules and regulations. How can you lose by three million votes in public and still take power? Inquiring dictators want to know this clown’s secret.

Once it all sinks in, you too may come to understand that the cards are stacked, the dice are loaded, the game is rigged. Resistance is futile: the frickin Borg are more empathetic. So there’s only one logical course of action. Regroup for the next election, sure, because tomorrow is indeed another day, absolutely. But for now, don’t squander your energy. Just give up and wait it out. I feel so much better now. Think about it, man. You can too.

Look anywhere, up and down the political spectrum, for another solution. Read anything you like and see if you can find any variance from my grim prognosis. I myself am tired of deception, hidden messages to the political base, inappropriate cheerfulness on a golf course or any other kind of levity while the world is going to hell. I’m throwing up the towel and I won’t waste another second worrying about Donald Trump. No, sir. Not today.

4/2/17: Though I stand by nearly everything expressed in this post, the notion that you should capitulate to the Trump catastrophe was written in jest. I don’t want anyone else to “take it the wrong way.” I tried my best to make the piece appear plausible, but I may have gone too far, and for that I apologize. I thought I’d left enough breadcrumbs (“look anywhere, up and down,” “hidden messages to the political base,” “levity while the world is going to hell,” “throwing up the towel,” categorizing the post as Humor), but I was wrong. The ultimate “tell” is this: anybody who knows me knows I would never ever ever advocate giving up or even shutting up. There is one more blatant indication that the post was intended as a prank which I’ll leave for you to find.


Terminological Inexactitude And Other Obfuscations

June 20, 2016

61b9BIkGz7L._SX369_BO1,204,203,200_If you find annoying the blatant B.S. rampant in politics, business and culture, here’s a chance to turn your grumbles into giggles. The latest collaboration by those scamps Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf is a compendium of doubletalk, deception and crude euphemism from all parts of society: SPINGLISH.

Our curators are a distinguished duo. Beard is the co-founder (with Doug Kenney and Harvard schoolmate Rob Hoffman) of National Lampoon and co-author (also with Kenney, while they were still in college) of the magnificent book-length parody BORED OF THE RINGS. In 1975, having fulfilled his contractual obligation, he cashed out of the Lampoon and became an instant rich man. The brand was as hot as it gets at the time and would soon scale new heights in the movie business, but Beard was sick of having to herd a ragtag group of high-strung cats like Tony Hendra and Michael O’Donoghue. He equated the Lampoon years with his hitch in the Army Reserve, which he hated. But now he could do anything he wanted, which included a lot of golf. He tried screenwriting and didn’t like it, then returned to his real forte, intelligent humor, which often put him on the Times bestseller list in the ensuing years. Cerf was also a pixieish provocateur on the Lampoon staff in its Seventies heyday. Besides writing, he has worked in music and television: I still envy one of my closest friends for getting to share quality Chris Cerf time on the public television series BETWEEN THE LIONS. But he will always be my hero for co-founding the “Institute of Expertology” with Victor Navasky and then issuing the ultimate collection of learned but mistaken prognostication, THE EXPERTS SPEAK, along with its shocking-and-aweing little cousin, MISSION ACCOMPLISHED! OR HOW WE WON THE WAR IN IRAQ.

51hbNavCQtL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_514VuaGXeuL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_At first glance, SPINGLISH’s wry explications of deliberately squishy phrases may suggest a 21st-century version of THE DEVIL’S DICTIONARY. The difference is, Ambrose Bierce was mocking; Beard and Cerf are reporting. Every entry is sourced and footnoted, mostly with second-hand citations in articles and papers, but there are plenty of notes that come complete with perpetrator and date. For example, we all know a “gentlemen’s club” is really a strip joint and “ethnic cleansing” is a blander term for genocide, but what corporation would use the creepily cheerful claim that eliminating one thousand jobs was “rewiring for growth”? Walgreens did, in a press release on January 8, 2009. The book is ecumenical and favors no particular culture-war combatant over another: outre usage seems to be universal. In 2008 Tesla’s Elon Musk described the “layoff” (itself an example of Spinglish) of ten percent of his workforce as a “modest reduction in near-term head count.” Emotionally neutral ways to downplay firings are some of the most common examples of soft-serve spin: other popular inspirations include lying, plagiarism, bankruptcy, and the use of lethal military force.

On reflection it’s somewhat sad how many of these euphemisms have fallen into common use and thus are widely understood in their unadulterated true form: collateral damage, downsizing, Rubenesque, sanitation engineer, friendly fire, overserved, mobile home, semi-private, surgical strike (surgeons try to prevent loss of life), executive assistant, well-endowed, strategic withdrawal, and many more. To help further our understanding of this obfuscatory tongue, the bulk of the “dictionary” is “Spinglish to English,” but the authors include a handy reverse “English to Spinglish” section so we can experience verbal transmogrification in yet another way.

The droll observations of our two auctorial satirists provide lots of fun. “Support our troops” really means “support our policy.” “Judicial activism” is “what judges you don’t agree with do.” A “freedom fighter” is “a terrorist who happens to be on the side you’re supporting.” “Hands-on mentoring” is “sexual relations with a junior employee.” “Fanaticism” is “what enemy troops display when they storm a well-armed position. When our troops storm a well-armed position, they display bravery.”

51IVFr0ZoeL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_SPINGLISH is quite the welcome relief after Beard and Cerf’s previous reference, ENCYCLOPEDIA PARANOIACA, devised by the “Cassandra Institute” as a guide to everything you should be “afraid of or worried about.” It’s fundamentally hilarious in that the book’s very existence makes fun of the fact that we Americans are afraid of our own shadows, but entry after impeccably sourced entry may actually cause you to fret about something new after having lived thus far in blissful ignorance. “This book just might save your life,” it claims. “(Apologies in advance if it doesn’t.)” SPINGLISH is at once lighter and more transgressive. There’s only one thing funnier than someone who thinks he’s clever clumsily trying to put one over on the rest of us, and that’s a tiresome pontificator taking a well-deserved pie in the face. To enjoy that bit of verbal slapstick, you need THE EXPERTS SPEAK.


Late And Later

January 12, 2016

With the current round of Late-Night Musical Chairs nearly complete (THE DAILY SHOW’s Samantha Bee will finish it next month), it’s a pretty good time to survey the landscape. They say it takes about six months for long-term tv viewing patterns to set in, and Stephen Colbert, James Corden and Trevor Noah haven’t gotten there yet. The seats of Larry Wilmore, Seth Meyers and John Oliver are barely warm, and it still feels a little funny to remember that the current host of THE TONIGHT SHOW is Jimmy Fallon.

378777_origThe most burning question in this real-life game of thrones was, what kind of show would Colbert conjure after dropping the faux right-wing persona he’d been playing for nine years? It turns out the “real” Colbert is a bouncy, brainy fanboy who can fawn over Robert De Niro one moment and joust with Bill Maher the next. One can’t stray too far from the venerable band-and-desk format, but now the band is the versatile, multiethnic Jon Batiste & Stay Human, which plays what its 29-year-old bandleader calls “social music,” meaning the musicians will more than likely parade into the crowd in the best New Orleans tradition. And Colbert’s writing team hasn’t lost its sly sense of just how far to push a bit of mockery.

The switch from David Letterman to Colbert was immediately visual: the band is now to the hosts’s left in the newly digitized Ed Sullivan Theater. Colbert claims that was Letterman’s suggestion, one thing Dave said he regretted from the old show. And remember, the current setup was how the stage looked for Johnny Carson. (My brother’s going to see it live later this month: I’m jealous.) But the more general shift is toward a different avenue. Old-school stand-ups like Dave, Jay Leno and Jon Stewart are gone; only Trevor Noah, who is packed with a world’s worth of characters and dialects, made his living on stand-up. The new hosts come from sketch comedy (Fallon, Meyers), improv (Colbert, Bee, Oliver), theater (Corden) and the writers’ room (Wilmore, Conan O’Brien holding forth on a new network). They can do stand-up, they just aren’t from stand-up.

_85805050_dailyshow1-gettyThe new hosts are starting to imprint their shows. After the new year and several weeks’ worth of viewer reassurance, THE DAILY SHOW changed its theme music and Noah began billboarding each episode by walking into the studio, far from the desk. He occasionally performs the entire first segment (what they call “Act I”), uh, standing up. Colbert bounds on stage at the top of his show and the billboard comes later. After the new year, the funky bass-based lead-in to Colbert’s theme music subtly yielded to Batiste’s piano; I’d imagine it was becoming too familiar.

Two years ago, late night was pretty easily compartmentalized. Leno was the popular one, winning in the ratings; Dave was the smart one, dripping with irony; and Jimmy Kimmel was the funky one, experimenting with the format to provide food for the emerging social media (remember the “music videos” for “I’m F—-ing Matt Damon/Ben Affleck”?). Now everybody wants on YouTube. Fallon may well be the king of the viral video, but his competitors are also dicing their shows to produce five-minute fodder, and Colbert is no exception. On most nights, his headline guest appears in two segments: first comes the expected interview, and then a bit of silly participation, such as three DOWNTON ABBEY stars reading their lines with American accents, or John Krasinski having a fake-vomit-off against Colbert, as his wife Emily Blunt had done the week before. The aim of these goofy stunts is to entertain not only the television audience, but also web surfers for days to come.

Then there are prerecorded “field pieces,” bits shot outside the studio, at which Colbert has always excelled, even back when he and Steve Carell pretended to be news correspondents on THE DAILY SHOW. The only others in his league are Conan and the master, Dave Letterman (who used to show historic field pieces to entertain his studio audience before the show). Colbert’s format keeps things unexpected: a juicy field interview could roll even after the first guest is gone, well into the show. Purpose: no flipping, as Larry Sanders used to say.

It’s in the classic in-studio interview segments where Colbert outdoes Fallon. His guests in his first few months have not only included the obligatory presidential candidates (Jeb Bush inaugurated the interview seat, which is probably as close as he’ll ever come to an inaugural), but Cabinet members, serious authors including Jonathan Franzen and George Saunders (who played the guitar), and interesting notables such as Michelle Dorrance, who won a MacArthur “genius grant” for her tap dancing skills. One of our great improvisers, Colbert is able to pull real emotion from his guests while entertaining. Things seem less scripted and more in the moment. As he told John Dickerson on FACE THE NATION, Colbert is aiming for “discovery, not invention.” His interview with Joe Biden, in which the two men bonded on-air over wrenching family losses, was an instant classic. He shushed a few audience members who were booing Ted Cruz: “he’s my guest.” If the bad vibes between Colbert and Bill Maher — who seemed rigid and out of place — weren’t genuine, then their interview was a master class in performance art. I’m betting they honestly don’t like each other.

watch-john-oliver-onlineColbert and Trevor Noah still look like the new kids, but so did Conan, Jon, Jay and the Jimmys when they first started. In time their presence will feel normal. Nobody has yet deconstructed late-night like Dave did (John Oliver has added real journalism to the satirical news format, completing the circle for young viewers who actually get information that way), but it’s interesting to see the various personalities peeking out from a format that has survived since the days of Jack Paar. Meanwhile, the busiest guy in New York has to be Lorne Michaels, who produces Fallon, Meyers and SNL, all in the same building. Thus, come to think of it, saving NBC a fortune in cab fare.

8/15/16: Comedy Central said today it is pulling the plug on THE NIGHTLY SHOW as of this Thursday, making Larry Wilmore the first-late night casualty.


My Name Is Tom Dupree, Dammit!

July 13, 2015

thUsing the wrong computer language can actually lose you customers. Anybody who read the recent Bloomberg Businessweek issue (not just the cover, the entire ISSUE) on coding will have some inkling, but here we go.

My name is Tom Dupree. (Thank you, no, please take your seats.) It’s not Dupre, or DuPree, or Du Pree or Depree or Duprieux or anything else. It’s Dupree. Like “Dupree’s Diamond Blues.” Like “Cousin Dupree.” Like YOU, ME AND DUPREE (why does that movie title sound familiar?). Those simple nine letters, the perfect number for a theater marquee — my god, it could be a stage name! — placed in exacting order are how you spell my given name, and there is no other goddam way. Not one other single solitary bob jack cat tail way. French, wherefrom my surname springs forth, can sometimes be a confusing, um, milieu, but look here: I’ve just handed you the answer to the test! Go spell my name to a child. Or a computer science professor. Bet you can do it perfectly now. Thanks, and you’re welcome.

Now. I have this rule. I will never respond positively to any direct-mail solicitation that cannot reproduce those precise nine letters using one space break and first caps only. If you misspell my name, I’m no friend of yours and I instantly grow tired of whatever you’re selling. I mean it: I’ve ignored some worthwhile stuff over this, and I will continue until they lower me down. I’m tough but fair: I’ll accept “Thomas,” even all caps, but you gotta nail the last part or you are dead. To. Me.

But get this: one time, long ago, I complained to some financial institution with which I no longer deal (over this same flippin reason; I’m serious) who kept sending everything to Thomas DuPree. They said the computer language used by their database couldn’t bring the rogue capital P down. (I suspect the language to be COBOL, which is all over the banking industry, but I invite comments by people more savvy than I. Anybody know?) In other words, I would have to be Thomas DuPree forever, because this particular language defaults to the misspelling. It must be a popular one, too: I had the last laugh with my now ex-financial institution, but I still get solicitations from well-meaning charities that not only continue the mistake, but sometimes send me a stack of peel-off return address stickers employing the hated fargin error! (The most recent set came today, from the nice but inaccurate folks at Thirteen…) I’m tempted to gather them up and send them back in the postage-paid envelope, but I stop and think, not to a nonprofit: only to the Republican Party. (Save and recycle your postage-paid envelopes from Reince Priebus, chillun. That’s what I do.)

Even longer ago, a newspaper reporter out West decided it would be fun to do a feature on those nutty guys and gals who write “cover copy” for paperbacks. He called me up, along with a few of my counterparts at other New York publishing houses, and he wrote an entertaining story. One prob. This guy’s name was — I think I remember this right — Scott LaFee. So in Scott’s otherwise lovely piece, I became Tom DuPree. The first thing I thought was, GRRRRRR! The second thing was, Scott: don’t you ask your interview subjects how their names are spelled, as doofus high-school reporters are taught to do as the very first question?

I’ve bawled, I’ve complained. Sometimes the Roman letters can be fixed by the secret coders in the beast’s belly. But the Great Database Producers (otherwise known as GDP) of America can now be divided into two parts: those who get it right and those who can’t or won’t. So I repeat for “executive summary” skimmers: spell my name incorrectly, and you could be offering a backstage meet-and-greet VIP package to the frickin Second Coming, but I’m still going to throw your illiterate form letter the motherlovin frick away.


The Dynamic Duo In Gotham City

July 10, 2015

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As Penn & Teller began their limited New York engagement last Tuesday night, it seemed like a valedictory performance, at least to those of us old enough to remember the mid-Eighties off-Broadway run at the Westside Arts that made them national stars. They are now the official longest-running headliners in the history of Las Vegas, which tells you how long it’s been since they’ve played Broadway. But New York still holds a special place in their hearts; you can tell.

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When they introduced themselves to the nation from the home base of that Westside engagement, they’d already been honing their act for a decade. They quickly became the hippest ticket in town (the eccentricity was a big draw; their Obie was inscribed “To Penn & Teller for Whatever It’s Called That They Do”) and favored guests on New York’s own Letterman show, which reached just their kind of crowd, all across the country. Back then, before the Internet took over everything, the technologically savvy P&T hosted MOFO, a computer bulletin board that allowed their fans to chat with the boys and each other. (It was named for “MOFO, the Psychic Gorilla,” the star of one of their few bits in which the normally silent Teller spoke, though surreptitiously.) Penn used to lead midnight jaunts through a grimier Times Square and descend with his small posse on an unsuspecting grindhouse for some kung fu or B-movie horror. They’ve always nurtured a personal attachment in their fans, greeting them outside the theater after each show. (Shake Penn’s hand or tell him you loved it, and he’ll probably say, “Thanks, boss.” See, everybody who pays to see him is his…)

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I had a strong feeling that this might be my last chance to see Penn & Teller on stage. Not that I sense anything ominous regarding their partnership or their appeal. It’s just that Vegas is so rippin far away. For years to come, I’m sure I can always buy a plane ticket and book a hotel room and schlep myself across the country to the Penn & Teller Theater at the Rio. But now, in a rare luxury, they were coming to me: all I had to do was hop a bus and take a short stroll. So I decided to make the most of P&T’s brief NYC residency by also attending their “TimesTalk” at the beautiful New York Times Center the Thursday before they began performing at the Marquis.

At the TimesTalk.

At the TimesTalk.

Before a fraction of the capacity of their Broadway venue, the boys chatted with moderator Erik Piepenburg, did a few tricks, and answered questions from the audience. You’ve heard Penn talk for years now, but Teller in particular is quite well-spoken and astute; he’s spent so much stage and air time in silence — which he views as a more intimate form of communication — that you occasionally find yourself disoriented as the “quiet guy” spews out deftly-considered sentences. They’re both wry and funny (Teller: the difference between the old street-busking days and Broadway is, “Here, you pass the hat first.”), yet dead serious about matters that demand it, including the performance of magic. I’ve probably watched Teller in Houdini’s “East Indian Needles” illusion ten times now, including at this TimesTalk and later at the Broadway show, and even though the method is widely known if you care to dig, it’s still exhilarating to see it nailed perfectly by a master; it’s exactly like watching a beloved song done live by the very singer you wanted to hear. They also presented their legendary take on “Cups & Balls,” an ancient sleight-of-hand routine, using transparent cups. At the end came one I hadn’t seen before: they convinced a blindfolded volunteer that solid rings were passing through her arms using an intricate, delicate series of moves requiring both performers. We, the audience, were watching the method, which was fooling only the blinded subject, and we were still amazed at the clever artistry that spun the illusion. Which was the whole point, after all. For us, it was a great intimate session with two wonderful raconteurs. For them, it was the dinner break from rehearsal.

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Five nights later, I was settling in for their first preview at the Marquis. As in Vegas, the Penn & Teller pre-show consists of a jaunty, merry jazz pianist (Mike Jones, “Jonesy,” who’s been with them forever) accompanied by a big guy in a fedora picking away on an upright bass. They’ve been playing since the house opened. The bassist is Penn, he’s actually a pretty good one-man rhythm section, and he’ll keep thumping that tub until about curtain minus :10. On stage, as is also common in their Vegas show, are some props that the arriving audience members are invited to come up and inspect and/or sign.

PENN & TELLER ON BROADWAY had been described by the stars in the TimesTalk as a summation of their career: not “our greatest hits,” but a meaningful selection. For example, “Needles” was the first trick Penn ever saw Teller perform. Historic. It’s in. The boys took command of the theater even before they were announced. Projected onto a big video screen, Penn instructed us to turn our cell phones ON. One lucky audience member was going to be selected for the first trick, and that person would be able to record it from an angle that would reveal the method. Once the mind-blowing bit was over, we all realized: the video inside that guy’s cell phone is the ONLY way you could figure out how that phone possibly got from one place to a jaw-dropping other place. A minicam figured into another hilarious piece as well. Never let it be said that Penn & Teller are old-fashioned.

No. Let it be frickin said. When they first appeared off-Broadway thirty years ago, Teller writes in the program notes, their producers advised them to avoid describing themselves as “magicians.” It, um, conjured the wrong image. So they remained coy about what they did (note the Obie citation). Only while exiting did their audiences realize they’d been persuaded to attend a magic show. Now, on their triumphant return, they’re embracing their inner magicians. Penn promises the audience that they will see nothing less than: (1) a rabbit pulled from a hat! (2) a lady sawed into halves! and (3) the vanishing of an elephant! “What more could you possibly want from a Broadway magic show?” he bellows. But in between, they take humorous but no less effective shots at hated enemies like “mentalists,” unthinking religious fervor (they don’t even like thinking religious fervor), and, science be praised, the imperious rat bastards of the T.S.A.

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Maybe I’m imagining it, but I think I noticed a nod to the duo’s advancing physical age. Don’t get me wrong, they both look great. Penn has lost more than 100 pounds after being diagnosed with high blood pressure and adopting a healthier lifestyle. Teller is as quick and agile as ever, but he’s a couple years older than I, and I have a Medicare card, d00d. What we didn’t see was one of those towering Grand Guignol bits that used to put Teller in jeopardy, whether suspended above spring-loaded bear traps or a row of pointed spikes, “drowned” in a water-escape cell, or madly pulling himself through tubes to appear as impossibly separated body parts. These are all illusions, sure, but they require physical effort too. I suspect that at some point the partners may have decided to pull back a scoche on the stuff that makes you pant. There’s a grisly moment played for laughs — their specialty — and Penn does “risk injury” in a piece with a nail gun, but that aspect of P&T has been refined. They still perform the amazing “Bullet Catch” in Vegas, but that’s as suspenseful as they get nowadays.

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No, my two favorite parts of this show were quieter ones. I think Teller has performed the piece they call “Shadows” every time I’ve seen them live, and each time it strikes me with a melancholy I can’t explain. (Same beloved-song analogy as above.) By the end of the illusion I want to cry. I almost did this time, because for me the trick’s innate sadness was stuffed together with, this may be the last time I ever see this. Sniffle. Then the lights went out and Penn began talking softly about carnival acts, the “ten-in-ones,” the freak shows. Then some fire lit him just a tad, and his monologue led us up slowly to a demonstration of fire eating. What he was saying seemed to come from deep inside. He never raised his voice. He said that after thirty years of coming out and greeting the audience after every show, they couldn’t help but eavesdrop on some remarkable comments. “Aw, Teller used candy needles.” (As if anybody would manufacture them.) “It was cold fire.” (WTF?) Everything else we’ve done tonight has been a trick, said Penn. This — meaning the small torch he was about to put into his mouth — is a stunt. They went through a routine that I once saw with a female assistant; tonight, the part was taken by Teller. Finally, in that same calm, earnest tone, Penn uttered the words that have opened and closed every live show I’ve ever seen: “I’m Penn Jillette, this is my partner Teller, we are Penn & Teller.” Now came a tear: the monologue and fire-eating was also how they’d ended their Westside Arts show, all those fun-filled years ago.

And just like that, poof! It was done.

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Dave

May 18, 2015

thYou probably have to be a certain age to really appreciate the effect David Letterman has had on late-night comedy — no, on comedy period. And you have to be lots younger, intense and distractable now, to understand without much pondering why it is that he has to go.

You gotta know the rules to break ‘em, they say, and the rules were set by the former king of late-night, Letterman’s idol, Johnny Carson. A shy, guarded man off camera, Carson was most comfortable in two places: standing on his star-marker to deliver the nightly TONIGHT SHOW monologue, and behind the protective barrier of his desk, from which he would inquire and admire. The list of guests who sat on the couch to Johnny’s right for his thirty years on the air is matched only by those of Dave’s thirty-three. At first glance, the format remains: monologue, band, desk, guest. But the difference between the two men is what was in the background, behind them, out in the country at large.

Carson’s thirty-year reign began in 1962, when New York was still the center of the television industry; he didn’t move to California until ten years later. He came from that era of show business in which the audience still gave a damn about whatever Buddy Hackett and George Burns had for lunch at the Friars Club, and guys, women take so doggone long to get ready, am I right? Because there was so little “candid” repartee on the air, Johnny Carson’s brand of chitchat was trailblazing. He managed to maintain his stance as a wide-eyed Nebraska boy (the surrogate for his audience) even when he’d already become a bigger star than most of his guests. And think about that ten-year period in America, beginning with a healthy JFK and ending with Nixon’s creepy henchmen: almost alone among showbizzers, Johnny remained vital and relevant through it all.

thHollywood seemed to suit Carson. Everything was in color now, and he continued to dress in the height of fashion, even as it changed around him. Those ties with knots as big as your fist don’t look all that silly on old video of Johnny, like the Nehru jackets do on Sammy Davis Jr. (Can you imagine a David Letterman men’s apparel line? Carson had one.) In the early Seventies I managed a small group of writers at my graduate-school job, and one of them was a rabid fan of THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON (that was the official name of the program in NBC press materials; I knew that from my college-era stint on the local Sunday newspaper). This was the first time I’d encountered somebody younger than I whose day was not complete until he’d watched Johnny, who missed the show when it went on hiatus, who could quote every Art Fern or Aunt Blabby sketch by heart. In his adulation for the Rat-Pack school of show business, this man seemed caught out of his time, like, say, Leon Redbone. But to him, the coolest guy on tv, far and away, was Johnny Carson.

The studio system had imploded and the kids were taking over film sets and recording studios. They were reacting — if not quite rebelling — against however the powers that be used to do things, no matter what that was. During Johnny’s second decade a group of young comedians caught up in that same artistic wave began to question the nature of comedy itself. While National Lampoon magazine extended sophomoric humor to the mainstream by allowing college weisenheimers to continue placing whoopee cushions well after graduation, standups openly wondered why they were still using the Borscht Belt as a template. The most obvious was George Carlin, who decided to ditch the suit and tie, grow his hair long, and employ his genius for wordplay as candidly as he could. He became a funny, raunchy hippie, embodying the “Al Sleet, the Hippy-Dippy Weatherman” character he had once jeered on the Ed Sullivan show. This same ironic distance was emerging in every aspect of the performing arts, and in television it manifested itself in SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, SCTV and wee-hour rock-concert shows. All these outliers were programmed late, late, for that was presumably when bleary-eyed hipsters were stumbling back to the apartment or the dorm.

250px-LatenightdllogoJohnny’s third decade began in 1982, the same year NBC opened up a new comedy slot immediately following his broadcast, to be mounted by his own Carson Productions. They didn’t have to look far for a host. One of those young pranksters was a TONIGHT SHOW favorite and Johnny’s personal choice for heir apparent. This was LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN, and its guiding principle was, we’re on after most of Johnny’s fans have already turned in, so we’ll have some fun with the format and deconstruct it for those night owls who are still up.

Although there was still a monologue, desk and band (the brilliant Paul Shaffer has kept Letterman musically vital all this time but still favors the classic rock that Dave’s original fans grew up on), the best parts of LATE NIGHT ventured out from Johnny’s safety zone, way farther than the few steps of the “Mighty Carson Art Players.” Letterman’s “field pieces” from that era (for example, taking over a Taco Bell drive-through station and messing with the unwitting customers) are still funny today: in fact, they’re being revived one by one on the last few shows. They’ve always played a classic remote piece or two to rev up Dave’s live studio audience as part of the warmup routine. There’s only one man who can do a field piece as well as Letterman, and that’s Conan O’Brien — but, of course, Conan went to school watching Dave, as did today’s DAILY SHOW correspondents, who march down the same well-whacked jungle lanes.

You could sum up LATE NIGHT with one simple fact. It was self-aware: it knew it was a tv talk show. Writer/performer Chris Elliott might pop up from a trap door as “The Guy Under The Seats,” later plop into the guest chair as an unctuous celebrity, skewering the very type of shameless promotion that had just aired on Carson. They might strap a minicam onto a monkey’s back and let the beast run loose, for no good reason at all. Then there were irresistible stunts, like Dave testing suits made of Alka-Seltzer or Velcro, or dropping stuff off a five-story tower to watch it burst. Don’t forget the legendary Stupid Pet Tricks and their offshoot, Stupid Human Tricks. It was as if the hell-raisingest class clown somehow glommed the keys to a tv studio and figured out how to turn everything on. The churlish NBC insisted all this was their “intellectual property” when Letterman was passed over as TONIGHT SHOW host on Johnny’s retirement, so the show had to start over when it decamped to CBS.

220px-The_Late_ShowThe NBC show kind of had the writers trapped in their offices at 30 Rock; they had to leave midtown for most of the field pieces, though they did find themselves playing around with a Simon & Schuster publicist whose office at 1230 Avenue of the Americas happened to be right across from theirs. (Because of this serendipitous relationship, S&S wound up publishing very popular collections of the writers’ Top Ten Lists.) Once CBS served them up an entire building, the old Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway, the rechristened LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN was able to stretch out. Now they dropped stuff from their own place onto 53rd Street, where they also rode horses, shot guys out of a cannon, held batting practice, etc. And they made friends with their new neighbors in what in 1993 was a rather run-down neighborhood (it’s not any more). Soon souvenir salesmen Mujibur and Sirajul and deli owner Rupert Gee were semi-regulars on the show, and charmingly bizarre field pieces could happen right next door (such as cramming dozens of people all wearing Spider-Man costumes into the local Jamba Juice).

Letterman himself had always been viewed as aloof and cranky when off camera, self-critical to a fault (journalist Bill Carter reported that Letterman scribbled the note “I hate myself” and showed it to Teri Garr during a commercial break). Opinions differ among those who know him well. But then two earthshaking events changed everything. In January 2000, he underwent emergency quintuple bypass heart surgery, which saved his life. And in November 2003, he and longtime partner Regina Lasko welcomed a son, Harry. Even casual fans can tell that Letterman has mellowed, softened, grown into a new kind of responsibility that has nothing to do with comedy. Parenthood may be a prime reason Dave decided to step down when he did.

We’ve been in the Letterman audience several times over the years, starting with the old NBC show in 1990. The guests that night at 30 Rock were Rush Limbaugh — a conservative curiosity stepping into the lions’ den six years before Fox News went on the air — and a young starlet named Sharon Stone, who was in a new movie, TOTAL RECALL. “Tell us a little about yourself.” “Well, I was born in Meadville, Pennsylvania…” etc., then a few moments later Letterman fished out a copy of the current issue of PLAYBOY with a, um, healthy pictorial. “What do they think of this back in Meadville?” A CBS taping years later featured Howard Stern, who came on already livid because Dave had been giving too much airtime to his then-rival, Don Imus. Stern was blowing a gasket, actually turning red, not letting Letterman get a word in edgewise. Cut to commercial. Stern immediately deflated, the two guys talked and grinned. It was an act, all of it. As the countdown back to air happened, Stern puffed himself up and made it look like he’d been yelling all the way through the break. You know the talk-show world is artifice in your brain, but now you get to see it with your eyes. Of course, the overpreparation makes it even juicier when the host does lose control unexpectedly, such as Drew Barrymore’s spontaneous upstage flashing, or the infamous interview with Joaquin Phoenix who was “in character” as a sullen rapper without Letterman’s knowledge. (Phoenix came back later to apologize.)

th-1I’ve always been amazed at the attention to detail in Shaffer’s musical direction: each piece of walk-in music has something to do with the guest. For example, George Clooney was on last Thursday night, and his newest project is a movie called TOMORROWLAND. So Shaffer and the “CBS Orchestra” struck up Jimi Hendrix’s “Wait Till Tomorrow.” This same thing happens every night, every time. (A couple nights ago, Shaffer buttoned a Top Ten list having to do with Thomas A. Edison with a familiar guitar solo. After the break, Dave said from the desk, “Todd Rundgren.” Paul replied, “I Saw The Light.” Dave said, “Perfect!” It’s gone that way for 33 years.) Then one night when I was in the audience Chuck Leavell, that keyboard master, happened to be in town with the Rolling Stones. So Shaffer asked him to come sit in with the “CBS Orchestra.” They did pick a couple Stones tunes, and I think an Allmans piece, but what impressed me was that Chuck held his own with these grizzled sight-readers — probably the most versatile house band on television — on anything they wanted to play.

A self-aware, self-deprecating, anything-goes tv show. (The host once described LATE NIGHT as “a comedy show disguised as a talk show,” but lately there have been a helluva lot of things for guests to plug; it can be wearying.) The ultra-ironic is not so unusual any more, because David Letterman’s DNA has been absorbed into the culture. A pure talk show like Carson’s is anachronistic these days; now you shoot for YouTube clips, something which Letterman admits he has trouble wrapping his mind around. The game has changed once again, as a new generational shift takes hold. The day after tomorrow, when Dave finishes his final show, the senior late-night host in time on the air will be Jimmy Kimmel — at 47 he’ll be the oldest too, but Stephen Colbert, 50, will edge him out when his show replaces Dave’s in September.

Nobody better deserves a happy retirement than David Letterman. I’d say it’ll be fun seeing him in interesting places, but Johnny virtually vanished after he left THE TONIGHT SHOW and enjoyed the rest of his life largely in private. There are many similarities between the two men, and holding their lives close to the vest is one of them. Frankly, I just wish one thing for Dave above all else. I want him to get to a place where he never feels like scribbling such an anguished note, ever again.


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