Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Late Night TV Wars Heat Up

ABC has had the news program Nightline at 11:35pm for many years. Jimmy Kimmel has his ABC show at 12:05am. It is a good show, but he has never gone head-to-head with Leno and Letterman, instead starting 30 minutes after them. Starting in January of 2013, Nightline will move to 12:35am and Kimmel will start at 11:35pm. So, we'll see how it affects the late night TV landscape with the 3 major networks all starting their late night comedy shows at the same time. NBC has recently cut staff at Jay Leno's show and Leno took a pay cut himself. Since Comcast purchased NBC/Universal they have cut costs to increase profits. Starting in March of next year Nightline will move to primetime. Kimmel has a good chance to get more viewers since Nightline averages 3.89 million viewers and Kimmel currently averages 1.8 million. Leno leads in ratings, averaging 3.71 million and Letterman averages 3.22 million. It always seemed like the audience for Nightline and Jimmy Kimmel would be different. The ratings for Kimmel will depend on the ratings for the local 11pm news on local affiliates I would think.


Film Analysis: Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989)

Above photos: the top photo is the official movie poster, showing Spike Lee as Mookie and Danny Aiello as Sal. The second picture shows Radio Raheem and his love and hate jewelry. The two emotions are juxtaposed in the film which had themes of love versus hate, racial tension and whether or not violence is justified, and under what circumstances.

Often times Spike Lee is not mentioned as a top American filmmaker, but he deserves to be. Way back in 1989 he made what many consider to be his best work, Do the Right Thing. It was nominated for 2 Oscars, one for Lee’s writing and one for Danny Aiello, best supporting actor. He has directed 50 films, dating back to 1977. His commercially released films previous to Do the Right Thing included She’s Gotta Have It and School Daze. His other works include; Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, Summer of Sam, Bamboozled and so many more.

Writer, producer, director... Spike Lee
Mookie... Spike Lee
Sal... Danny Aiello
“Da Mayor”... Ossie Davis
Mother Sister... Ruby Dee
Radio Raheem... Bill Nunn
Jade... Joie Lee
Pino... John Tuturro
Buggin’ Out... Giancarlo Esposito
Tina... Rosie Perez
Mister Senor Love Daddy... Samuel L. Jackson
Cee... Martin Lawrence

A prominent song in the soundtrack is Fight the Power by the popular 1980s rap group, Public Enemy. This is no coincidence. The opening credits show Rosie Perez dancing to this song, at times wearing boxing gloves. A major theme of the film is the distrust of authority, especially the police. The film also has an underlying racial tension that builds up to a violent crescendo. It deals with conflict in the Brooklyn area of Bedford-Stuyvesant between blacks, whites, Puerto Ricans and Asians. It's the hottest day of the year in Bed-Stuy. The temperature is on the rise and so is conflict.

Mister Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), is kind of like the narrator for the film, as he surveys the neighborhood from his radio studio. He is the DJ for “We Love Radio”, last on your dial but first in your heart. One of his many catchphrases is “That’s the truth, Ruth”.

Lee plays Mookie, a pizza delivery guy for Sal’s Famous Pizzeria. In his Jackie Robinson Brooklyn Dodgers jersey, he delivers pizza to all in the neighborhood. The pizza parlor is owned by Sal (Danny Aiello). One day a friend of Mookie’s, called Buggin’ Out, notices the Wall of Fame in the pizza parlor. Sal has photos of all of his Italian American idols such as Frank Sinatra, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro and more. Buggin’ Out asks why there are no “brothers” on the wall. Sal says that it is his business and he can have pictures of whoever he wants on the wall. Buggin’ Out is outraged and demands that people boycott Sal’s pizza until he gets photos of blacks on the wall. Sal has a son who is racist but Sal reminds him that the people in the neighborhood have been their customers for years, allowing the business to survive.

The late 1980s was a period of popularity for boom boxes, portable stereos that would blast radio, cassettes and CDs. One of the guys in the ‘hood is Radio Raheem, who blasts Public Enemy’s Fight the Power at full volume as he walks the streets. He gets mad at the Korean owner of the corner store when he does not understand the request to buy new batteries. He tells him to learn how to speak English. Sal gets angry with Radio Raheem when he blasts the music in his pizzeria.

Smiley is a character in the neighborhood who stutters severely and sells photos of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Mookie buys a photo from him when he gets his paycheck. Late in the film, Smiley has a key scene.

Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem come into Sal’s with Public Enemy blasting and demanding that Sal put pictures of “brothers” on the wall. Sal refuses and smashes Radio Raheem’s boom box with a bat. Radio Raheem jumps the counter and attacks Sal. The fight escalades and goes outside onto the sidewalk. The cops show up and put Radio Raheem into a stranglehold, until he stops breathing. They throw him in the back of a cop car and take off. Mookie decides to get involved and he throws a trash can through the plate glass window at Sal’s. People begin looting the pizzeria, tearing it apart. Smiley sets it on fire and people run out. The Korean grocer across the street is afraid that his business will be destroyed. He swings a push broom at the crowd and says “I, you, the same!”

Smiley goes into the pizzeria as it burns and puts a picture on the wall of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. The only criticism I have of this film is that it should have neded with that shot. It did not, it showed the aftermath of the fire, the next day as Mookie walked to the pizzeria to get his paycheck from Sal.

Before the credits roll, there are 2 quotes that appear on screen. One is from Martin Luther King Jr. The essence of it is the quote “Violence is impractical and immoral”. Then a quote from Malcolm X is shown that in part says, “I don’t call it violence when it is self defense, I call it intelligence.” Which leaves us to ponder, when is violence justified? I think that this film is a landmark in the career in Spike Lee, and it addresses important questions about race and violence in America.

*Some information from

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Film Analysis: Amelie is a Masterpiece of French Cinema

I greatly enjoyed the French film Amelie (2001) the first time I saw it about eight years ago. I could relate on an emotional level to many of the themes of the story. This was obviously a work of art, created by someone who has a passion for the craft of film making. The story is emotional, lovely, whimsical and a delight, but also it was the look of the film that drew me in. No wonder it was nominated for 5 Academy Awards, including best cinematography. It was also nominated for a BAFTA award (Great Britain) and a Cesar (France) in the same category. The special features had a vignette that discussed the look of Amelie. The quote from the director, Jean Pierre Jeunet, spoke volumes about his work as an artist. He said "Nothing is difficult for me when making a film. I love so much to make. That's my reason to live." If only everyone felt that way about their career. It was pointed out that the look of the film had a lot to do with the saturation of colors. When watching the film I noticed that the color green was used extensively. As a complement, red was used as well, sometimes with a single blue object in the frame, like a blue lamp in a couple of cases. The director was influenced by a Brazilian painter named Fabio Marcelo who did the same thing. That painter uses vibrant colors much like one of my favorites, Romero Britto, who I have written about in an earlier blog post. In the vignette it was discussed how certain shots utilized a moving camera, but other shots used a fixed camera since the movement would disrupt from the emotional connection. The film Amelie was story boarded extensively, so the cast and crew knew exactly what to do when the arrived on set. I will give a synopsis of the film, detailing some of the key scenes and commenting on the emotional underpinnings of the work.

Amelie is a French girl, shy, timid and sheltered. She grew up with a father who is a doctor. She had very little affection as a child so the only time he touched her was when he gave her a physical exam. Her heart would race when he examined her, so he figured she had a heart condition. Due to this she was home schooled, which led to a childhood of isolation where her only friend was a fish. The little girl found ways to amuse herself and retreated into a world of imagination. She enjoyed the simple things in life, such as skipping stones on a pond. Her parents were the same way and her dad liked to empty out his tool box and re-arrange everything. Her mom liked to dump out her purse and re-arrange the contents. Young Amelie gets a camera and starts taking pictures of the world around her. She is sensitive and solemn.

Fast forward to the present, and Amelie works as a waitress at the Two Windmills Cafe. The film looks at her unusual co-workers, one of which is a hypochondriac. She goes to a movie every week and takes pleasure in watching the faces behind her of the movie patrons enjoying the show. She is single and lonely. A key character is a man in her building who has a disease where his bones are very brittle, so he must stay inside all day, otherwise he may break a bone. He is like a man made of glass, too fragile to take any chances. He paints a Renoir painting over and over, once per year, trying to get every detail just right. Amelie is living a life not much different than his, with her fragile heart made of glass, too delicate to risk emotional rejection from a male companion.

Amelie has a life changing experience when she finds a box hidden behind a loose tile in her bathroom. Inside are relics from a childhood: a toy car, a toy bike, a photograph, etc. She will find the owner of the box and return it to him. She finds out his name and leaves the box in a phone booth where the owner will find it. When he finds it, he is emotional and excited since the box takes him back to his childhood. Amelie feels wonderful since she has helped someone to find happiness. She feels a sense of harmony and elation. She feels like an outcast so much of the time but this makes her feel like she has done something special for someone else. One of the main themes of the film is that she works hard at helping others but in turn, neglects her own needs.

Her father has a garden gnome which he paints and takes care of. Amelie is jealous of the attention that the statue receives and she steals it. Later, the father gets pictures in the mail of the gnome at world landmarks as he travels the globe. I had to wonder if this film is what made the travel company, Travelocity, use the roaming gnome as their mascot.

Amelie does not like to see anyone mistreated. She notices that the neighborhood grocer is mean to his employee, belittling him in front of customers. Amelie gets her revenge by going into the grocer's apartment when he is not home and playing practical jokes on him. She swaps his slippers with a pair that are a size smaller, she sets his alarm clock for 4 a.m., she puts sugar in his wine, and other tricks that make him feel like he is losing his mind.

She finds a photo album full of pictures taken in a photo booth at the train station. She seeks out the owner of the album and returns it to him. But, she did not turn it over to him personally, she sends him on a wild goose chase, following different clues until he finally gets it back. There is a scene where Amelie (Audrey Tautou) has large dark sunglasses and a scarf on her head where she looks similar to Audrey Hepburn in the film Breakfast at Tiffany's. Whether this was an homage to that film or not, I don't know.

Amelie wants to meet this man and develops an interest in him but even when she comes up with an elaborate scheme for them to meet, she chickens out and lets her fear get in the way of love. Toward the end of the film, the glass man sends her a video tape telling her to go for what she wants in life. She is not glass like him, and she needs to take chances. He tells her to go to the man she loves. Her crush had come to her door once but she did not open it. After she watched the video by the glass man she went to her door to go after him and he was there. They embrace, and the film ends with them riding though Paris on a scooter together, the look of joy on each of their faces.

This film is a delight. It is a feast for the eyes and the performance by Audrey Tautou was spot on. Amelie has a sense of mischief, whimsy and wonder. It is a celebration of life and love. Melancholy at times, yes, but the main theme is that life is too short, go after what you want. We are not made of glass. Even a broken heart will mend over time.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

New Media Presents Challenges for Old Media

These days, so many people get a lot of their information via the internet. When I was in college in the late 1980s/early 1990s, things were much different. In college I did not know anyone who had a computer in their dorm room. No one had a cell phone or an mp3 player. None of us had heard of Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Google or blogs. My term papers were typed on an ancient device called a typewriter.

The past 15 years or so have been challenging for media outlets. TV stations, radio stations and newspapers have experienced shrinking customer base which leads to less advertising revenue. People figure, why buy a newspaper when I can get information free via my computer? Why listen to the radio when I can get free pod casts and download songs to an mp3 player? People can watch full length TV programs on the internet as long as they have a fast connection, so traditional broadcast TV stations have fewer viewers than they used to. Yes, broadcast TV has had competition from people renting movies, watching cable stations and doing other recreational activities like playing video games. But the internet has been a fierce competitor that changes people's habits concerning how they get entertainment. If you have been in a movie theatre lately, many of them seem to have few customers since people watch movies at home and download films legally (and illegally). Newspapers, radio stations and TV stations seem to be putting more of an emphasis on their online presence which only makes sense.

With a blog like this one, I can put my ideas into a format that is free. It can be distributed widely or selectively. No wonder that we see some news sources like The Huffington Post that is 100% online. No need to purchase printing presses, paper and ink, just put it online. Adam Carolla has a very successful pod cast that many people enjoy. He does not need to have a broadcast transmitter and all the equipment like a radio station does. A person can make a video with a $100 video camera and upload it to you tube for free. Times are changing so quickly, it is amazing to see what has happened, especially since about 2000.

Is the explosion of the internet good or bad for society? That is not easy to answer, and it is up to the individual to evaluate that. The internet has created many jobs, but it has caused many to lose jobs as well. There's no use in fighting about it since we can't go back, only forward. When society went from using the horse and buggy for transportation to the "horseless carriage" or automobile, many were put out of work in that transition too, such as blacksmiths and buggy makers. But, on the other hand, the auto industry created millions of jobs. The only constant in life is change.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Orson Welles' Citizen Kane is No Longer #1

Earlier this week a list was released which has the top 50 films of all time, according to the critics, and other film experts. For 50 years, Citizen Kane was number one, but now it has been replaced by the Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece, Vertigo. Every 10 years the list is generated by Sight and Sound magazine, starting back in 1952. The magazine also polled over 350 directors, asking them to rank their top 10 films of all time.

The critic's top 10 include:

1. Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock, 1958

2. Citizen Kane, Orson Welles, 1941

3. Tokyo Story, Ozu Yazujiro, 1953

4. La Regle du jeu, Jean Renoir, 1939

5. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, FW Murnau, 1927

6. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick, 1968

7. The Searchers, John Ford, 1956

8. Man with a Movie Camera, Dziga Vertov, 1929

9. The Passion of Joan of Arc, Carl Dreyer, 1927

10. 8 1/2, Federico Fellini, 1963

Some other notable films in the top 50:

14. Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola, 1979

20. Singin' in the Rain, Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1951

21. The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola, 1972

28. Mulholland Dr, David Lynch, 2001

31. The Godfather Part II, Francis Ford Coppola, 1974

31. (tied) Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese, 1976

35. Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock, 1960

The list of the top 10 films chosen by directors contains many of the films also in the top 10 of the critic's poll, but I thought it was interesting to see #5 as Taxi Driver, #6 as Apocalypse Now and #7 as The Godfather. Many feel that the 1970s in America was a golden age of film with auteurs such as Scorsese, Kubrick, Woody Allen and Coppola leading the way. I have seen very few movies that were made previous to the late 1960s so my knowledge of the early days of the medium is limited. I have also seen very few foreign films. When I watch a film I like to watch the film for the directing style, the acting nuances and the set design. With foreign films, reading the subtitles makes it hard to do that. My list of top films would include some on the above lists, but also many others would be added. If Hitchcock's Vetigo and Psycho are on the list, why not Rear Window? Scorsese's Taxi Driver is amazing, and one of my top 10 no doubt, but I would also include him for Raging Bull, GoodFellas and Casino. Kubrick's 2001 is an achievement, but I preferred A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. If the Godfather 1 and 2 are on the list, I would include another violent film by another Italian-American filmmaker, Scarface, by Brian DePalma. The absence of Woody Allen films is a mistake in my book, and I would include Annie Hall and Manhattan. Allen's hero, Ingmar Bergman was on the critic's list at #17 for Persona. I was surprised to see David Lynch on the list at #28 for Mulholland Drive since I preferred Blue Velvet. I would have included James Dean's tour de force, Rebel without a Cause, which I feel is too often overlooked as a masterpiece of cinema.

But, alas, with any list there is controversy about what was included and what was omitted. I often wonder if critics feel pressure to like the art house or foreign films, so they can hold onto their credibility. If they do, then that is too bad since many of the more down-to-earth, less cerebral films are also enjoyable. Would a critic feel odd to include The Wizard of Oz or It's a Wonderful Life? They shouldn't, since those are outstanding works of art.

With the lists I notice how few of the entries are films made in the last 20 years. It seems like the film industry has often catered to the lowest common denominator, sticking with sequels, remakes and films based on comic book heroes simply because they attract a wide audience. That is a shame. For that reason, people owe it to themselves to check out independent films and documentaries. These are made due to the love of the media of film and the passion to tell a story, not out of the desire to break box office records. Attend local film festivals and make it a point to seek out these gems. We all "vote" with our wallets for what we want to see.


Saturday, July 28, 2012

Documentary Discussion

Documentary films are great because they make you think. Common themes for them tend to be either political/social issues or the arts. I have liked this genre of film ever since the 1980s when I watched Michael Moore's Roger and Me, about the demise of a former booming GM factory town, Flint, Michigan. Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me had such an effect on me that I have quit eating McDonald's cold turkey ever since I saw it eight years ago. Not every documentary filmmaker inserts themselves into the film like Spurlock and Moore. Many prefer to exist behind-the-scenes only. Charles Ferguson is another of my favorite documentary filmmakers. He made No End in Sight and Inside Job. Some of my favorite documentary films have dealt with agriculture and food in America. These include Food Inc., Fresh, King Corn and more.

I have discovered the Documentary cable channel recently and have rented a few docs via Netflix. Here are some that I recently saw and enjoyed.

A Life in the Theatre

This is about a woman who is in her 90s, and she has been the owner of an off-off Broadway live theatre in New York for many years. It was excellent since it demonstrated how the love of art can bring people together. Those who work in the theatre have an amazing camaraderie. Developers want to destroy the theatre but she fight to save it.

Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead

This is about an Australian man who has battled obesity and the related health problems and comes to America to embark on a journey. He travels across the country, eating only a liquid diet consisting of fresh fruits and vegetables that he puts in a juicer. It is a look at obesity, health problems and the ability of humans to change their lives. The filmmaker ends up losing lots of weight, not needing any more medicine, and inspiring many others to do the same.

Music Man Murray

This is about an old man in Los Angeles who runs a record store. It is packed with thousands of recordings he has collected over a lifetime. He estimates that the store is worth a couple million dollars. The challenge is to sell the store and its content for a good price so his collection and his legacy will not be destroyed.

Map the Music

I enjoyed this film since it looks at the power of music to bring meaning to our lives. A woman is shattered after losing her father, so she embarks on a road trip to talk to everyday people and a few famous musicians about what music means to them.

The One Percent

This is an examination of the one percent of Americans who are ultra wealthy, and the 99 percent who are not. The filmmaker is one of the heirs to the Johnson and Johnson family fortune. He talks to rich and poor, about the distribution of wealth in America, despite the fact that his family does not want him to make the film. Relatives of Warren Buffett and Oscar Meyer also appeared in the film.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

This movie was a fascinating look at a comedy legend and her struggles to remain a relevant member of the show business world. Even though Joan Rivers is 75 years old and has had decades of success, she still has a fragile ego and she longs to be accepted. The film shows her performing stand up in New York as well as at an Indian casino in Wisconsin. It shows her doing a roast on Comedy Central, and it documented her opening a play in Scotland and England. She revealed that she originally wanted to be known as an actress not a comedienne. She is OK with people criticizing her comedy but has a thin skin if people are critical of her acting skills. She acknowledges that show business is challenging since rejection is a big part of the industry. The movie mentioned how Johnny Carson gave her her big break in the 1960s but later quit speaking to her when she took a job on Fox as a late night host. She mentioned how her husband Edgar was devastated by the failure of the Fox show and later committed suicide. Joan's daughter Melissa mentioned that stand ups are generally insecure people, craving attention and approval, and that her mother is no exception. Rivers seemed like a very lonely person whose main goal is to fill up her calendar with work so she does not have time to think about her life outside of her career.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Good Grief! Charles M. Schulz and the Philosophy of Peanuts

Above photos, from top:

This is an example of how Peanuts dealt with issues such as the quest for happiness.

The first Peanuts strip from 1950. Notice the absence of Charlie Brown's stripe on his shirt.

Peanuts kids dancing in the TV special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, music by Vince Guaraldi. The boy in the orange shirt is a minor character named 5. The twin girls on either side of him are his sisters, 3 and 4.

The Peanuts gang, main characters.

Cartoonist Charles M. "Sparky" Schulz.

I recently listened to a book on CD called "Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography". It was a highly detailed account of the life of Charles M. Schulz. It is amazing to see the similarities between Schulz and the star of his comic strip, Charlie Brown. Schulz was a private, humble man from Minnesota who struggled with issues of insecurity just like Charlie Brown. He drew every strip himself, with no assistants, for half a century, from 1950 to 2000. Many cartoonists have assistance meeting their deadlines but Schulz insisted on doing it all himself. Once he was asked why he did not helpers, and he said, would Arnold Palmer have someone else hit the ball for him?

As a kid I had many Peanuts books and always enjoyed the strip. I think that it has remained popular, even for many years after the death of its creator in 2000, for many reasons. I see Peanuts as a cerebral strip, a thinking person's comic. It deals with issues that other comics do not, such as theology, philosophy, art and music appreciation, and psychology. Schulz realized that kids are much smarter than people think. Charlie Brown dealt with feelings of isolation, depression, insecurity, wanting to be liked. The comic is funny, but it also makes us think too. The characters enjoy being kids, but they also wonder about the meaning of life and the quest for happiness.

The characters were complex. Linus was the intellectual philosopher, who often would quote Bible verses, with his security blanket and his yearning to meet The Great Pumpkin. Schroeder idolized Beethoven and was oblivious to Lucy's admiration of him. Charlie Brown battled feelings of insecurity and tried to find joy in baseball and sought out advice from Lucy's psychiatry booth. Snoopy pretended he was a World War I flying ace. Schulz said this about Snoopy:

"Snoopy’s whole personality is a little bittersweet. But he’s a very strong character. He can win or lose, be a disaster, a hero, or anything, and yet it all works out. I like the fact that when he’s in real trouble, he can retreat into a fantasy and thereby escape."

Charles Schulz ("Sparky" to his friends and family), had regrets about not being there for his kids. His characters from the strip were more like his kids than his real life family. I admire anyone who is able to do the same job for a long period of time. The thing that is ironic is that Schulz had stopped drawing the strip due to battling cancer, and he died the day that the last strip was published in newspapers.

Here are some Peanuts trivia facts:

There was a character named 5. His full name was 555 95472. He has twin sisters named 3 and 4. I recall a Seinfeld episode where George said that 7 would be a good name. Maybe this was an homage to the Peanuts strip?

Some of the other minor characters included; Molly Volley, Tapioca Pudding, Truffles, Thibault, Lila, Eudora, and Peggy Jean.

Snoopy has seven siblings, from his early days at the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm. Their names are Spike, Olaf, Molly, Rover, Belle, Marbles, Andy. They were all featured in the Peanuts TV special, Snoopy's Reunion.

From 1950-1957, Snoopy walked like a regular dog, on all 4 legs.

Linus and Lucy are brother and sister. They have a little brother named Rerun. Charlie Brown and Sally are brother and sister.

Charlie Brown's dad is a barber, same as Charles Schulz's dad.

Schulz had his own ice arena, near his California home.

Charlotte Braun was a short-lived character, appearing in the strip from 1954-1955. She was bossy and loud, like Lucy.

Both Peppermint Patty and Marcie have a crush on Charlie Brown. He seems oblivious.

* Some information from Schulz and Peanuts, A Biography, by David Michaelis, and

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Adam Sandler: What Happened?

Adam Sandler used to make some good, funny, movies. Remember The Wedding Singer (1996), 50 First Dates (2004), Happy Gilmore (1996) and Billy Madison (1995)? I even liked some of his serious roles such as Punch Drunk Love (2002) and especially Reign Over Me (2007). So, he has shown that he can do comedic roles as well as serious parts. He's not an untalented guy. He had some funny roles on Saturday Night Live, especially when working with people like Chris Farley and David Spade. But, too often he has made awful movies that fall short of being funny, they are just stupid. These include projects like Little Nicky, Mr. Deeds and Anger Management. The last film I saw with him was Funny People, which despite the title, was not all that funny. So many of his films seem to be aimed at the sense of humor of a junior high boy. I have no problem with sophomoric humor. I loved movies like Superbad and Step Brothers. They are childish, but funny. I didn't even bother seeing Grown Ups, Jack and Jill or That's My Boy. He has been typecast to such a degree that the silly, crazy comedies are all that he can do, and even those are a disappointment at the box office sometimes. Also, many of his work seems to be focused around creating projects for his SNL buddies like Rob Schneider and David Spade.

*Some information from

Friday, June 29, 2012

Arsenio Hall will Return to Late Night TV

Generation X TV fans will recall Arsenio Hall's high energy late night talk show which aired from 1989 to 1994. His show was a hit with young and urban viewers who had abandoned Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, which went off the air in 1992. Some may recall that Arsenio's show was a threat to Carson's ratings dominance. Saturday Night Live actually did a hilarious skit where Johnny Carson tried to emulate Arsenio by renaming his show "Carsenio". Dana Carvey played Carson, with a flat top haircut and lots of Arsenio-like fist pumping, and Phil Hartman was spot-on as Ed McMahon. Carvey had a group of rowdy audience members patterned after Arsenio's "dog pound". In 2013, Arsenio will return to late night TV hosting a show that will be distributed by Tribune Co. and CBS Television Distribution. Hall has taken a break from the spotlight to focus on being a father. Recently he was back in the news again after winning Donald Trump's NBC reality show, The Apprentice. We'll see how he does in the crowded universe of late night TV. I always liked his energy and enthusiasm. When Bill Clinton played his sax on the show in 1992, people said it was a key factor to Clinton's crafting of his image to reach a wider audience.


Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Pitch on AMC is Mad Men for the 21st Century

Mad Men has some of the finest writing, acting and visual elements of any show on television. It looks at the world of New York advertising in the 1960s. The AMC network has capitalized on the success of that show by releasing a reality show called The Pitch. Advertising is a cut-throat industry where only the strong (and most creative) survive. The Pitch looks at how two competing ad agencies go head-to-head to try and win the account of a client. The show is from the creators of Undercover Boss, and these programs have some similarities. The one that is most noticeable is the product placement. In this age of dwindling TV ratings and people skipping commercials through the use of the DVR, this is becoming more common. The show is promotion for the product as well as the competing agencies. I like the show since it reveals the behind-the-scenes brainstorming sessions and the formulation of ad campaigns. Some episodes I have watched had agencies making their pitch to executives from Subway, Pop Chips, Waste Management and Marriott's Autograph Collection hotels.
Find out more about the show here:

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The King of Late Night: The Life of Johnny Carson

Photos, from top to bottom: 1. Johnny with David Letterman, in 1994, which was his final appearance on TV. 2. A very young Johnny as "The Great Carsoni", his magician alter ego. 3. Johnny from 1966, four years into his Tonight Show stint. 4. Johnny with his sidekick, Ed McMahon, and his trumpet player/bandleader, Doc Severinsen. 5. Johnny reacts to the song by his final guest, Bette Midler, singing "One For My Baby (and One More for the Road)".

Forty seven stories below ground in a Kansas salt mine lies some of the most precious treasures in the history of American television. This is where you would find 4,000 hours worth of episodes of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. I have always been a fan of Johnny's work, and being an avid student of entertainment, I was excited to watch the PBS special "American Masters: Johnny Carson", narrated by Kevin Spacey. 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of Johnny's debut as The Tonight Show host in 1962. Most of the information in this article comes from that special, with some personal anecdotes thrown in by myself. Johnny Carson's humor transcended generations. Through watching his show and others with my father, it was a way for us to connect. Often times we are enthralled by the same comedians that bring our parents joy and an escape from every day life. My dad idolized Carson, as well as other comedians from his generation such as Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason, George Burns and Don Rickles. Many who watched Carson host his show for 30 years never realized that behind that confident aura was a man who battled alcoholism, social anxiety, womanizing which contributed to the end of three marriages, and all he really wanted was acceptance from his mother.

Johnny Carson was born in Iowa on October 23, 1925, but spent his formative years in the small community of Norfolk, Nebraska, where his family moved when he was 8 years old. At age 12 or 13 he knew he wanted to entertain others. He became obsessed with learning magic tricks. He said that performing magic gave him confidence. He said it allowed him to "be the center of attention without being yourself". He mentioned how the most basic need that people have is to be accepted, liked, and even loved. His dad had Midwestern values and integrity. His mother had the sense of humor but never seemed impressed with Johnny's talents. Like many middle children, Johnny felt like he did not get the attention of his older and younger siblings. He wanted to carve out his own identity and magic was the first step in doing that.

In 1943, Carson started his stint in the Navy where he was a communications officer and also had a record of 10-0 as a boxer. He was assigned to the USS Pennsylvania in the Pacific Ocean. A highlight of his military career was performing magic tricks for the Secretary of the Navy.

Carson idolized Jack Benny, and he was a dedicated listener to his radio program. Carson was a student at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln where he majored in radio and speech and minored in physics. Johnny got a job after college as an announcer at WOW radio in Omaha, Nebraska. Johnny was getting into show business at the dawn of a new age, the age of television. In 1949, only 1500 people in Omaha had TV sets. The following year, he entertained them on his first TV show, called The Squirrel's Nest. By 1951, Johnny figured it was time to make the move to Los Angeles to seek out opportunities in the entertainment field. He worked as an announcer and became a writer for comedian Red Skelton. He also hosted a show called Carson's Cellar (1951-1953). In 1954 his big break happened when he was able to fill in for Skelton. Around this time, The Tonight Show with Steve Allen appeared on NBC. In 1955, Johnny got his own show on CBS, The Johnny Carson Show, but it did not last. After 39 weeks on the air, the network pulled the plug. One bright spot from that year was Johnny's chance to appear on a TV show with one of his idols, Jack Benny, who predicted success for the young comedian. Depressed, with 3 kids and a stressful marriage, the Carson family moved to New York City. ABC hired him to host a game show from 1957-1962 called Who Do You Trust? He teamed up with an announcer who would be with him for the rest of his career, Ed McMahon. Steve Allen left his post as Tonight Show host after a few years (1954-1956), and he was followed by Jack Paar, who hosted from 1957 to 1962. By 1962, Johnny had divorced his first wife, Jody (married from 1949 to 1962), and had married Joanne Carson, who managed many of his career choices. She was the one who lobbied for him to replace Jack Paar. Johnny was not confident he could fill those shoes, but Joanne had faith. The Tonight Show job had been rejected by Bob Newhart, Jackie Gleason and Groucho Marx.

In 1962, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson premiered on NBC, originating from studio 6B at Rockefeller Center. It was a grueling job, filling one hour and 45 minutes of time, five days per week. His mother was his toughest critic. She did not think he was funny. By 1969, Johnny's audience was enormous. 85% of the country, 45 million people viewed the episode which married singer Tiny Tim to Miss Vicki. Competitors such as Dick Cavett and Merv Griffin tried going head-to-head against Johnny in late night, but Carson and NBC remained on top.

By 1972, Johnny decided the show needed to move to a Los Angeles suburb of Burbank, which would enable them to get better guests. Johnny was married to his job (he divorced Joanne in 1972 and married Joanna later that year), so he was distant as a father. One of his kids said to bandleader Doc Severinsen "I wish I could be as comfortable with my dad as I am with you". By this point, Carson was a show business icon, trusted as much as Walter Cronkite. Away from the cameras, Johnny was socially awkward and found that drinking did not help him to relax, but it only made him belligerent. He admitted this in a 1979 60 Minutes interview. On The Tonight Show he joked that Ed had the drinking problem, but it was more of an issue for Johnny. In 1982 Johnny was arrested for driving under the influence. He was driving a DeLorean, and he was a major investor in that company. Carson had a love-hate relationship with his sidekick. David Letterman compared the pair to Laurel and Hardy. Ed was almost fired from the show for upstaging Johnny. Ed needed to play the second banana role, and not attract too much attention.

By the late 1970s, NBC was struggling in the ratings, but The Tonight Show was strong, providing NBC with 20% of its income. Johnny had a turbulent relationship with NBC executive Fred Silverman and contemplated leaving the show. A contract was drawn up which would pay Johnny $5 million per year and he only had to work 4 nights per week. Starting in 1980, the show was cut down from 90 minutes per night to 60 minutes.

The 1980s provided many ups and downs for Johnny. In 1983 he had to pay a $20 million divorce segment to his 3rd wife Joanna, which provided fodder for many of his jokes. Johnny would have guest comedians host his shows the night he was off and one of his favorites was Joan Rivers. In 1983 she became his first permanent guest host. In 1986 Joan Rivers accepted a job as a late night host on Fox. Johnny felt betrayed and never spoke to her again. In 1985 his mother died. In 1987 he married his 4th wife, Alexis Maas, who he met as she walked on the beach behind his Malibu home.

Johnny could make or break the careers of young comedians. Drew Carey, David Letterman, Jay Leno, Ray Romano, Roseanne, Jerry Seinfeld, Garry Shandling, Ellen Degeneres and many more entertainers felt like Johnny was the reason they became successful. He let them be the star when they did his show. He enjoyed few things more than discovering new talent. Ray Romano said that once you got the approval of Johnny, your income tripled immediately. Drew Carey broke down and cried when he thought of how Johnny gave him his big break. Television hosts these days do not wield that kind of power. After a stand up performed, Johnny would often say "good stuff, funny stuff". If he was really impressed, he would invite them over to sit with himself and Ed and chat for a bit. If that happened, the comic would receive many job offers the next day from what I have heard. Even a comedic icon like Don Rickles credited Carson for giving him his big break, back in 1965. Recently Rickles was presented with the 2nd annual Johnny Carson award for comedy. The inaugural winner last year was David Letterman.

Billy Wilder said this about Carson, summing up his brilliance:

"By the simple law of survival, Carson is the best. He enchants the invalids and the insomniacs as well as the people who have to get up at dawn. He is the Valium and the Nembutal of a nation. No matter what kind of dead-asses are on the show, he has to make them funny and exciting. He has to be their nurse and their surgeon. He has no conceit. He does his work and he comes prepared. If he’s talking to an author, he has read the book. Even his rehearsed routines sound improvised. He’s the cream of middle-class elegance, yet he’s not a mannequin. He has captivated the American bourgeoisie without ever offending the highbrows, and he has never said anything that wasn’t liberal or progressive. Every night, in front of millions of people, he has to do the salto mortale [a circus parlance for an aerial somersault performed on the tightrope]. What’s more, he does it without a net. No rewrites. No retakes. The jokes must work tonight."

In 1991, Johnny's son Rick was killed in a car accident when his car went off a California cliff side. Friends said that Johnny was never the same after that happened. In 1992, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson came to an end after 30 years. His final guests were Robin Williams and Bette Midler. He ended his final show (May 22, 1992) with the following statements:

"And so it has come to this... I, one of the lucky people in the world; I found something I always wanted to do, and I have enjoyed every single minute of it. I want to thank the people who've shared this stage with me for thirty years, Mr. Ed McMahon... Mr. Doc Severinsen... and the people watching. I can only tell you that it has been an honor and a privilege to come into your homes all these years and entertain you... And I hope when I find something that I want to do, and I think you would like, and come back, that you'll be as gracious in inviting me into your home as you have been. I bid you a very heartfelt good night."

That same year he was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George Bush. The following year he was given the Kennedy Center Honor. Johnny's final TV appearance was in 1994, when he delivered a top ten list to David Letterman. He recieved a 90 second standing ovation. Whether Johnny wanted Leno or Letterman to be his successor is up for discussion. All I know is that Johnny would fax jokes to David Letterman that he would use in his monologue. Letterman admitted that after Johnny died. Carson did not send jokes to Leno. That says a lot. On Leno's first show as Tonight Show host he did not acknowledge Johnny, and most of Johnny's staff was let go. I think that NBC went with Leno since they saw Letterman as too controversial and Leno would do whatever the NBC executives said to do. The PBS special pointed out that in 1991, Leno's manager, Helen Kushnick, planted a story in the L.A. newspapers saying that NBC had plans to oust Carson and replace him with Leno. The book and film The Late Shift chronicled this period where Leno and Letterman battled to take over the show. I am not a fan of Jay Leno. He does not listen to his guests when they are talking and he seems like a phony with his nice guy, down-to-earth image.I don't think that his show is that funny, and Letterman would have been a better replacement. To replace Carson with Leno is a mistake and it has tainted the image of a great franchise which had been hosted by Steve Allen, Jack Paar and Johnny Carson. The debacle a few years ago with Conan O'Brien taking over and not working out and then Leno moving to 10pm, only to move back to the 11:35pm slot, hurt the show even more. I think that Conan would have made a great host but he was not given enough of a chance to let his new format catch on with viewers. Also it hurt matters that Leno was moved to 10:00pm, so by the time that 11:35pm arrived, the audience was significantly smaller, since they felt like they had already watched The Tonight Show. I felt bad for Conan in that situation, since he is truly a brilliant comedian and a much better interviewer than Leno.

In retirement, Johnny enjoyed his hobbies such as playing tennis, reading, drumming (Buddy Rich once gave him a drum set) and spending time on his yacht, the Serengeti. He actually learned Swahili and traveled to Africa to joke with the people there. One of the people interviewed in the show said that Johnny was the most well-read people he ever met. He loved astronomy, and I recall that Carl Sagan was one of his favorite guests.

In 1999, Carson had a heart attack, which was followed by a quadruple bypass surgery. Johnny Carson died on January 23, 2005 at age 79 due to emphysema, brought on by years of smoking. He left $156 million to his charitable fund. The charity was originally created in 1981 to benefit children, education and health services. David Letterman said "Johnny Carson gave me something to emulate". To this day, hosts like Letterman, Conan, Leno, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and others still use the same format that Carson perfected.

Television, music and movies are my passions, and they have provided me with more enjoyment in my life than almost anything else. I loved Johnny's show because of his top notch guests, the outstanding big band music of Doc Severinsen and his band, and especially the wit and charm of the host, who personified class. I liked when he did his various characters such as Carnac, Art Fern, Aunt Blabby, Floyd Turbo, Ronald Reagan, and others for his Mighty Carson Art Players segments. Some may disagree, but in my opinion, Johnny Carson was the greatest entertainer in the history of television.

* Material from this article is from the PBS special "American Masters: Johnny Carson" and

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Top 10 Films of All Time: My List and Ebert's

Recently Roger Ebert released his list of top 10 films of all time. I have great respect for the man and his knowledge of the medium. It has been sad to see him deal with his health struggles which have silenced his voice forever. But, his brain is still sharp, and through reading his books, I have learned a lot about film. Here is his list:

Aguirre, Wrath of God (Herzog)
Apocalypse Now (Coppola)
Citizen Kane (Welles)
La Dolce Vita (Fellini)
The General (Keaton)
Raging Bull (Scorsese)
2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick)
Tokyo Story (Ozu)
The Tree of Life (Malick)
Vertigo (Hitchcock)

Here is the link to Ebert's list:

Lists like this are challenging since tastes change over time. My list is more like my favorite films of the past 40 years, since I have not seen many "old" movies, although Citizen Kane and Rebel without a Cause were amazing. I have not viewed the number of films that Ebert has, but here is my list of the top 10 films that have had the most effect on me.

Taxi Driver (Scorsese)
Casino (Scorsese)
The King of Comedy (Scorsese)
The Godfather (Coppola)
Scarface (DePalma)
Manhattan (Allen)
Annie Hall (Allen)
Schindler's List (Spielberg)
Almost Famous (Crowe)
Wall Street (Stone)

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Not Everything That Oprah Touches Turns to Gold

Oprah's OWN network has struggled to find viewers for the 15 months it has been on the air. Since October, Rosie O'Donnell has tried to grow her ratings as she took over Oprah's old Chicago studio with The Rosie Show. The ratings have fallen from 500,000 to just 150,000 viewers. I only watched the show once, and the absence of a studio audience was a mistake in my opinion. It seemed eerie to introduce a guest and have them walk out to complete silence. The studio audience added so much life to Rosie's old show a decade ago. Rosie's adversary, Donald Trump, took the opportunity to call Rosie a failure when he heard about the cancellation.

The OWN network has 90 employees, down from 150 at its peak. Discovery Communications, Inc. owns part of the network along with Winfrey. They will take more of a hands-on approach to managing the network.

* Some information from The Chicago Tribune and Fox News