Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Danger of Watching Donny and Marie; The Joy of Resurrecting Sonny and Cher

Christmas is a great time to reunite with friends and family, and to share happy memories of times past. (Or is that New Year’s?) Either way, I had a very interesting Christmas this year when it came to the presents I received. Apparently I must reek of nostalgia for TV variety shows of the 1970s, because a lot of my gifts seemed to share that common theme. (I kid you not.) I was given “The Best of Donny and Marie,” “The Sonny and Cher Show,” “The Best of Laugh-In,” “Love, American Style Season One” and the weirdest selection of the bunch, “Paul Lynde’s Halloween Special.”

Some people might consider this a collection of bargain bin items. But I was actually looking forward to sitting down and reconnecting with some of the shows I thought were so great when I was younger. (With the possible exception of Paul Lynde's special, which I'd never heard of before.)

First in the line-up was “The Best of Donny and Marie,” which comprised several of their greatest episodes from the first two seasons of the show. But after watching the first three, I was surprised the show ever made it to Season Two. (Let alone Episode Two.) The sad part is that the DVD is being released as “the best” of the series; which makes me wonder just how bad “the worst” of the series is. (Perhaps those would be more interesting to watch.)

The jokes were horrible, the sketches were childish, and the singing was mostly lip-synched. How did I ever think this show was good? Or maybe I never really did; I just thought I was supposed to. After all, Donny and Marie are a part of American culture. We grew up with them; or at least I did. And though I don’t think the show translates well in today’s more sophisticated TV environment, I’m sure the simplicity of themes and dialogue might do well on a channel like Nickelodeon, or perhaps in conjunction with a show like “The Teletubbies.”

I’ll admit I’ve always had a place in my heart for Donny and Marie. Not because I was such a big fan, but because they represented the kind of nerdy optimism I wanted so badly to believe in. Their perfect smiles and happy-go-lucky attitudes were as foreign to me as the countries we’ve bombed and invaded over the past several years. Perky was not accepted in rural Ohio like it is in Hollywood; especially from a boy. But on television every week, Donny and Marie reminded me that anything was possible; even if it meant using a laugh track and ice skates to accomplish it.

So maybe my happy memories of “The Donny and Marie Show” were more about what Donnie and Marie represented rather than the actual show itself. They taught me to look for the silver lining and never wear spandex in public, and for that I will always be grateful. Their shows, however, could use a major facelift.

And that's when I wondered whether I was getting into some dangerous territory. If I didn't like the Donny and Marie show as much as I thought I did, what did that mean for the rest of my 70s memories?

Next on the viewing agenda was “The Paul Lynde Halloween Special,” which is just as creepy as you might imagine. Mr. Lynde, a regular on Hollywood Squares and Bewitched, is just not interesting enough to carry his own show. He’s much better served as a supporting player, using his signature vocal inflections to deliver a ribald punch line or two. But in this TV special, which only recently became available on DVD, he is horribly upstaged by the long list of celebrity guest stars, Donny and Marie among them.

Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch in “The Wizard of Oz” reprises her famous role for the special, and is humorously aided by Witchipoo from the old “HR PufnStuf” series. Together, they drive the show forward, as Paul Lynde sort of stands around looking miserable. The highlight of the show is a horrible disco version of Harold Arlen’s “That Old Black Magic,” uncomfortably sung by Florence Henderson, who dances around the set in a floor length sequin black dress accompanied by dancers in orange Afros. Screechingly bad!

Two down. Three to go.

Finally, I decided to watch a little of the “Sonny and Cher Show,” just to make sure my memories of 70s television weren’t being irrevocably tainted by our current atmosphere of terror and cynicism. And to my relief, the show is as funny and campy today as it was when it first aired oh so many decades ago. Cher is much younger, of course, and her nose looks different. But the chemistry between these two is unquestionable.

Every time Sonny thinks he’s going to win an argument, Cher easily deflects his zingers with her deadpan attitude and delivery. It’s classic comedy, brilliantly marketed to the masses by two people who always seemed like the epitome of cool. Even when they were arguing, they were fun.

And then of course, there are Cher’s many costumes and solo performances, which have been copied and duplicated by drag queens all over the world. No wonder she’s been able to survive so long. People keep resurrecting her persona. (Although at this point, I’m not sure how many more resurrections her body can physically take.) Nevertheless, I loved this show when I was younger, and I still love it today.

Having restored my faith in the legitimacy of my happy memories, I will next move onto “Laugh In” and “Love, American Style.” But right now, I just want to bask in the glow of at least one childhood recollection restored, and one more Christmas celebrated.

I can’t even think about 2008 yet.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Decoration of Independence

To celebrate Christmas this year, I decided to go “all out” when it came to decorating my house. I wanted to saturate my rooms with the same kind of Christmas décor I remembered from my youth. Ornaments, figurines, a wreath made out of bottle caps and bread dough. I wanted to immerse myself in the holiday spirit and cover my walls with everything red and green.

And to make sure I had enough time to successfully complete the process, I decided to begin right after Thanksgiving. That would give me nearly a month to get everything ready. Plenty of time, right?

So on Black Friday, with an overabundance of enthusiasm and caffeine, I mounted the stairs to the attic to find my collection of holiday paraphernalia. The various boxes and bags were all carefully stored together in one corner, so whenever I purchased a new ornament or decoration, it was easy to find a place for it. I would just add it to the pile.

Unfortunately, now that I was actually standing in front of the pile, trying to remember what all the boxes contained, I got a little overwhelmed. There was so much stuff. Certainly too much to effectively conquer in a mere twenty-some days. Perhaps I should have started this process much earlier. Like before Halloween.

As I pawed through my stack of holiday memorabilia, I remembered all the joy I used to have as a kid whenever holiday decorations were brought out. The whole family used to gather together to trim the tree and place all the decorations throughout the house. Even our bathroom had special décor we’d put out every year. (A toilet seat cover with Santa’s face on it. When you lifted the seat, the other side showed him covering his eyes in embarrassment.)

There was such a magical aura or spirit about the season, and for some reason the decorations had a lot to do with maintaining that ambiance. I was always sad when we had to put everything away again, because it immediately changed our house from a festive party atmosphere to something much more ordinary. And dull.

So with this in mind, I began carting the boxes of ornaments and other accoutrements down to the living room, where I piled them up in a corner for safe-keeping. This pile was eventually divided into two sections, one of which was taken down to the basement for distribution in the recreation room. Because of the number of boxes, and the awkwardness of getting them down the narrow attic stairs, the entire process took several hours to accomplish. And when it was completed, I suddenly had no desire to do anything more, let alone decorate. So I took a nap for the rest of the day.

A week went by and the boxes still remained in their piles on the floor. Every time I looked at them, I began to feel nauseous. Not because I didn’t like what they contained, but because I dreaded the day I’d have to haul them back upstairs.

And that’s when I realized I might have a bit of “selective memory” when it came to my youthful holiday experiences. Because now that I really thought about it, my family stopped decorating for the holidays sometime before I reached puberty. I was the only one who actually brought down the decorations and distributed them throughout the house. The rest of the family was too busy watching football games or doing crossword puzzles. So if I really thought about it, most of my childhood memories of domestic holiday spirit were actually manufactured by me. If I hadn’t kept up the tradition of setting up the tree and decorating it, we might have opened our presents in front of a Hallmark card.

So in reality, I wasn’t recreating a family tradition by decorating my house in style. I was recreating my own tradition. A tradition I’d carried out independently, long after other members of the family ceased to care. (I don’t mean they didn’t appreciate my efforts; they just didn’t care to help with the process.)

It is now December 20th and I haven’t even gotten through half my boxes yet. What the Hell was I thinking? How much Christmas spirit does one need to purchase until they realize enough in enough? Don’t get me wrong, I love all the Radkos and Hallmarks and lighted houses and such. But now I have enough holiday décor to supply a small village. There simply is not enough room in my house to showcase everything effectively. Or at least not in the little time I have remaining.

Next year, I think I’ll hire a display crew to come in and set everything up. That way I can still enjoy the holiday, without losing any of my spirit.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Curiosity Willed the Cat


This is my cat Trey, doing some light reading over the weekend on why it's important to have a Will. Not sure where he found this particular piece of literature, but it makes me wonder who he was thinking about while reading it--himself or me.

Friday, December 14, 2007

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Artist

Have you ever read The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron? Well, don't let the title fool you. The book is not just for artists. It's intended for anyone interested in going on a spiritual journey to free their inner creativity. Personally, I never had such a desire. If I want to go on a journey, I'd much rather go to London or Disney World.

Nevertheless, I can't tell you how many people over the years have suggested that I read it. I'm talking dozens of people, perhaps hundreds. At first, I thought it was just a nice suggestion, like:

"You should really read The Artist's Way. You'll like it."
Or…
"I was given a copy of The Artist's Way. But I think it's more for someone like you than someone like me."

“Someone like me?” I would ask, not sure what they were implying. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You know, someone creatively stifled,” they would respond with a smile. “And poor.”

Gradually the suggestions began to take on a much more desperate tone, tinged with a sense of urgency and panic.

"Please, please. Do yourself a favor and read The Artist's Way. It may be your last chance at finding a happy and fulfilling life."

It was as if people thought The Artists Way was some kind of antidote for whatever ailed me.(Though I don't think laziness is really considered an ailment, is it?)

Naturally, I didn't listen to any of these suggestions, which is probably why I remained unmotivated and miserable for years. Then I got laid off from my full-time job and found myself faced with nothing to do, a relatively large amount of time on my hands, and no more excuses. So I decided to pick it up.

Now the first thing you learn as you're reading the introduction to The Artist's Way is that it's a twelve-week program. Not to be confused with a twelve-step program, although I'm sure the principles are similar. And it's not just a book. You actually have to do work. You read a chapter a week and then do all these exercises that are designed to help you "discover and recover your creative self". (And I'm quoting here.) But twelve weeks? I barely have relationships that last twelve weeks.

So I'm reading the introduction and I find out that before I even get to Chapter One, I have homework I need to start right away. And what's more, I have to do this homework every day. (Which suddenly made me realize why so many people kept recommending it. They needed to justify their own experience with this 12-week program by making sure other people did it too. Kind of like a pyramid scheme.)

Anyway, the homework I’m referring to is affectionately known as the "morning pages." Every morning I was supposed to get up and write down three pages of anything that comes out of my brain. It could be stream-of-consciousness, or writing about an event that happened, or just three pages of crap. In fact, that's what it's supposed to do. Drain your brain of all the crap. Freeing you to be a more effective creator, no longer burdened with the pain of mental overload. I almost put the book back on the shelf.

But as I said, I had the time, though maybe not the right attitude. So I started writing my morning pages. And for the first few days, I really enjoyed it. Writing down three pages of bitching is an opportunity one should never pass up. I actually found myself yelling in my morning pages…with lots of expletives and exclamation points.

I blamed everyone in the world for my failures. For my inability to move forward as an artist, for my writer's block, for getting laid off from a job I never really liked. Basically I used the pages to exert my revenge upon the world.

"Boy, will they be sorry. I talked about them today in my morning pages. That'll show 'em.”

Still, even with this daily ritual of bitching, nothing was changing in my life. So I decided to move on from the introductory chapter of The Artist's Way to the first week of the course. My intent was to devote myself whole-heartedly to this project of creative enlightenment. I wanted to completely immerse myself in constructing origami birds and building skyscrapers out of tin cans. Or whatever the weekly projects in The Artist’s Way happened to be.

That was my intent. But in reality, I never made it past the first chapter. For before I even began working on my first exercise, I received a phone call from a woman named Unity Kingsmill. A phone call that changed my life forever. (Of course, if you’ve read “It Happened in Plainfield,” you know exactly what I mean by that.)

I still have my copy of The Artist’s Way, which I fully intend to pick up again someday. (Perhaps even before I get fired again.) As for my morning pages, I haven’t completely given up that form of literary diarrhea. I just call them something different now. My blog.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

My Vet is Killing Me!

When did the cost of taking care of an animal exceed the cost of taking care of yourself? Recently I’ve taken my cat Chase on a series of unfortunate visits to the local Animal Hospital. I say unfortunate, because I’ve spent more for Chase’s healthcare over the last six months than I have for myself over the last ten years. It’s unfathomable that a little cat could require so many tests and shots and examinations that an average visit costs between $600 and $900. For a cat! I can go to a regular doctor and pay less. (Unfortunately, my healthcare plan doesn’t consider Chase a "significant other.")

And because Chase was recently diagnosed with diabetes, I now have to give him two shots of insulin a day. Plus, all the ongoing tests he must get, the special food he has to eat, the other medicines he must take. It’s like I’m caring for an invalid parent. And while I’m very sympathetic to his situation and needs, the cost of keeping him healthy is going to put me in the poorhouse.

And diabetes isn’t the first major issue I’ve had with Chase either. I once spent over two thousand dollars for a series of tests that ultimately determined the reason for Chase’s sickly demeanor was because he had a mild case of gas. What? You couldn’t just look at him and tell me that? You had to run his blood work so many times I needed to take out a small loan just to pay for the results?

I remember when going to the vet meant a quick check-up, maybe a blood test or two, and then a nominal fee for the whole visit. You didn’t pay a Vet as much as a regular doctor because you weren’t dealing with humans, you were dealing with animals. But now the Vet has assumed a different status; a snotty sort of superiority that makes you feel guilty if you don’t want to pay for that extra urine analysis or a dissection of his stool sample. Not to mention the ridiculously high fees they charge for “waste disposal.” (How can anyone justify $7.50 for waste removal? You throw something in the trash can and you’re done. For that, you get $7.50? I should be so lucky.)

I also have a sneaking suspicion the receptionists in a Vet’s office get a sadistic pleasure when they tell you the price you'll have to pay for the visit.

“And the total for today's exam is…,” they say, inserting a huge pause before dropping the bombshell. “Ten thousand, four hundred dollars and twenty three cents.”

It’s like they get some kind of high every time they get to deliver the bad news. And if people freak out, so much the better. On one visit, I actually witnessed someone faint in front of me when the receptionist gave her the total. And after they carried the poor woman out of the reception area, I believe they added on a fee for “waste removal” as well.

So I guess the question becomes, when does your pet become more of a liability than a pleasure?

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Strange Facial Contortions of Celine Dion

I was watching Celine Dion perform on the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Lighting last week, and was shocked to find that her strange mannerisms (once thought to be eccentric) were now getting severely out of control. As Ms. Dion sang her two lip-synched numbers, she raised and lowered her eyebrows, pursed her lips, bulged her eyes in and out, and generally overplayed every facial muscle she had. The result was an oddly entertaining performance that made me wonder if Celine Dion is actually the first documented case of living animation. There simply is no other explanation for the fluidity of movement from one bizarre expression to another.

Perhaps because she was lip-synching her songs rather than actually singing them, she felt the need to do more with her face. Or perhaps she just doesn’t understand the concept of “less is more” when it comes to interpreting the lyrics of a song. For example, you don’t actually have to act like a snowflake when you say the word “snowflake.” Although the word flake probably would apply very well here.

I’m not saying anything about Ms. Dion’s vocal abilities, because they are undeniably exceptional. She has an incredible range. But to watch her actually performing a song has become almost painful. Her over-the-top facial orchestrations are beginning to remind me of a young Norma Desmond. Or an old Dakota Fanning. It just didn’t seem like her expressions were connected to anything going on inside her head. If in fact there was anything going on at all.

Not only was Celine’s contribution to the show lip-synched, but it was probably also taped days earlier. After all, Celine sang LIVE on “Dancing with the Stars” the night before. It’s doubtful she would take a red-eye all the way back to NYC, when she’d already been there the week before. And why she decided to sing dull songs, I don’t know, but they certainly put a damper on the otherwise peppy proceedings. (With the possible exception of Taylor Swift’s uneven deconstruction of “Silent Night.”) Maybe Celine was afraid to lip-synch to a faster song because she couldn’t methodically construct that many expressions in enough time to fill the space.

But that’s just my opinion. What’s your opinion of Celine’s mannerisms?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Don't You Hate It When...

The most interesting conversation you’ve had of late is with a cat. (And it wasn’t even your cat. It was just some stray cat that happened to walk on your property one day.)

You get a Valentine addressed to Occupant.

You get home and discover your fly is wide open, and you wonder how much of the day it spent in that position. (And why nobody bothered to tell you.)

You congratulate a woman on her pregnancy and she isn’t pregnant. (Believe me, this happens more often than you think. Or maybe it’s just me.)

The last time you had a really good laugh was sometime during the Clinton Administration.

You have a dinner party and everyone coming is a vegetarian.

You see a Job posting on Monster.com for your job, and the Human Resources person at your company refuses to take your calls.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Are You Being Controlled by Your Cat?

When most people think of cats, they think of the cute, cuddly, purring creatures celebrated in so many calendars, greeting cards and Fancy Feast commercials. However, I discovered a darker side of the popular house pet that may require further examination. I am speaking of the Cat Conspiracy that appears to have taken over my household.

It all began several years ago when I used to live in NYC. I had a modest split-level studio apartment with a spiral staircase that overlooked my bed. I thought nothing of it when I put the bed there, as it was really the only space large enough to hold it. However, my two cats Chelsea and Chase found the spiral staircase to be the perfect venue to carry out their evil plan. Every morning they would wake me up by launching themselves off the spiral staircase and on to my stomach. Or my head, or my armpit, or wherever they happened to land. They didn’t really care where they jumped to, as long as it achieved their ultimate goal---to wake me up so I would feed them.

At first I thought this was a rather cute and clever way of getting my attention. After all, waking up to find a cat flying through the air over your head is certainly something everyone should experience at least once in their lives. It makes quite an impression when you see outstretched claws soaring toward your face. And then to experience the joy of “touchdown” as their long nails sink into your epidermis, perhaps scarring you for life. Or at least for the next week.

But after a few times of this adorable ritual, I got rather tired of it. Especially when they decided their skydiving activities were not exclusively reserved for the early morning. Sometimes they liked to go parachuting in the middle of the night, which unintentionally added another level of horror to the nightmares I was having. Imagine being chased by a monster in your dreams at the same time that a 14 pound cat suddenly lands with a thud on your chest. It’s enough to give you a heart attack.

Which is why I decided to counter these attacks the only way I knew how—by covering up the stairwell, so they could no longer stand on the steps and jump onto the bed. The first thing I tried was aluminum foil, because I’d heard that cats don’t like to go near it. (Something about the smell, I think.) So I wrapped the spaces between the rungs with long strips of the foil, making sure there were no gaps underneath that a cat could slip through. This looked rather ridiculous, of course, but I was sure it would deter them from their nightly flights of fancy.

Unfortunately, my cats had no qualms about aluminum foil. In fact, they apparently liked the way it sounded, as they scratched and crinkled it all night long. Like hearing nails on a chalkboard, the crackling of the aluminum foil was even more of a sleep irritant than the acrobatic kitties. Eventually, they managed to tear through several pieces anyway, and then their trapeze act was back in action. Foiled by the foil.

Later, I tried using towels, pillows and even books to plug the gaps. (The latter having a rather unfortunate ending when a pile of old Robert Ludlam novels was shoved off the staircase and onto my head.)

Finally, I just gave up. Because no matter what I tried, those two cats were smarter than me. And they worked together as a tag team, attacking my torso from different angles and levels on the stairs. Chelsea was the lighter and nimble one, so she could jump off the highest stair, and glide effortlessly downward until she hit her target much the same way a penny falling from the top of the Empire State Building might land. Luckily, she was quite light, so her falls from grace didn’t have as large an impact as they might. Chase, on the other hand, was a huge overweight cat that loved to belly flop onto my stomach. I can’t tell you the level of pain this caused, though I did get a much stronger set of abs from continually holding them clenched in anticipation of the next assault.

Sadly, Chelsea passed away and I eventually got a new companion for Chase, in the form of a short-haired black male named Trey. This was the first time Chase had ever lived with another male, having only known the joys of Chelsea for the last five years. And though at first the two males had their issues, eventually they decided it was better if they combined their energy against me rather than each other. Chase soon taught Trey all about the nightly/morning routine, and I soon found myself witnessing a new chapter in my terrifying saga—the emergence of Evil Cat-nieval.

I gave this nickname to Trey after a series of stunts he pulled early one Sunday morning. While Chelsea had been able to drop off the top stair quite effortlessly, Trey added the element of speed by starting his jump all the way back at the kitchen, and then making a mad dash down the stairs until he dove off and landed on me with a bigger impact than just by jumping alone. Sometimes he would throw in a little twist in the air, or do a double somersault. As long as he reached his target with as much force as possible, he didn’t care. He was fearless.

This went on for several years, until I moved out of the city and into my own house in the suburbs. Finally, I would be rid of that damn spiral staircase and the ability for my cats to perform target practice on my body. My bed was now in a normal room and there was nothing around me that the cats could launch themselves off of. I made sure of that.

But cats will be cats. And soon they discovered a new way to get my attention. They jump on me from the other side of the bed. Or run around the bed, using me as a launchpad for jumping somewhere else. Which is sometimes worse than actually being jumped on; as their launch requires them to roughly push their legs (and nails) into me as they thrust themselves forward.

So here I am, a sadly beaten man, hen-pecked by two male felines. If anyone has a suggestion as to how to defeat this evil pair and their nightly visitations, please let me know. Before it’s too late!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Ode to the Writer's Strike

(Sung to the tune of "Close to You" by the Carpenters.)

Without words, you would never hear,
Dialogue that is clear,
Actors need,
Writers to feed,
Words to you.

When a script has a juicy plot,
And suspense, there’s a lot,
It just shows,
Some writer knows,
What words to use.

Writers say ideas are born from their imagination,
They conceive a story that the world will view,
But for work that they’ve created,
They’re not fairly compensated,
It’s the truth.

That is why all the scribes in town,
Are on strike, look around,
No more prose,
Till someone shows,
The dough they're due.


Let's hope this gets resolved quickly. I don't know how many more reality shows I can take!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Going Bananas Over Hannah Montana

Every time I hear about the current ticket problems with Hannah Montana concerts, I can’t help thinking about David Cassidy. Why? Because when I was growing up, (Oh God! Not that again!) Mr. Cassidy caused the same kind of hysteria wherever he went, especially when he was giving concerts. Legions of devoted fans crammed themselves into concert halls or stadiums just to catch a glimpse of David in the flesh. Though during the so-called concerts, there was so much screaming, yelling and crying, that it was impossible to even hear him. And if you were in the nosebleed section of one of these venues, you probably had a hard time seeing him as well. (Luckily, there were plenty of plastic binoculars for sale to help you get up close and personal.)

I have the feeling that a similar amount of frenzy will surround much of the upcoming Hannah Montana tour. Devoted parents, who think they are giving their children a rare opportunity to see their idol in concert, will no doubt be disappointed at the actual event. Not that their children will care, as their motivation for going is probably more of a status thing rather than an actual need to hear Miley Cyrus singing LIVE. They want to be a part of history, and tell their friends, neighbors and future grandchildren that they were there when Hannah performed her bubble gum songs in places like Savannah, Atlanta or Indiana.

In psychological terms, the ability to actually snag one of these coveted tickets is equivalent to going through a right of passage. It proves that you have the resources and financial freedom to get whatever you want, and are immediately elevated to a higher status among your peers. You become a Hannah Montana Top Banana. Or even more importantly, a member of the infamous Miley-High Club.

(What the heck kind of name is Miley anyway? The first time I heard of Miley Cyrus, I thought it was some new kind of infectious disease. And now that I’ve heard all the controversy surrounding the hard-to-get concert tickets, I don’t think I was really that far off.)

So why all the frenzy over Hannah Montana tickets? Is it really that important that your child sees this concert? Will it dramatically alter her life if she doesn’t? (Or his life, if he happens to be among the male fan base, which is statistically ten percent of the population.) And why do parents feel it necessary to shell out hundreds, perhaps thousands of dollars to make sure their child isn’t left behind? Why not just shell out ten dollars and get them a nice CD or DVD? It will undoubtedly be more fulfilling, and certainly less dangerous than going to the actual concert.

And what kind of message are parents sending to their children if they allow them to idolize such a duplicitous teen, anyway? The whole premise of Hannah Montana is that the character leads a double life. Like the Clark Kent/Superman character before her, Hannah simply dons a blond wig and is immediately perceived as someone completely different. Is this the kind of role model we want our children to emulate? By taking them to a Hannah Montana concert, are we really telling them that lying about who you are is acceptable? As long as you wear synthetic flaxen extensions to do it?

The one time I actually watched a Hannah Montana episode, I got very tired. The actors were expending so much time and energy trying to maintain Hannah’s secret identity that I felt much the same way I do after eating a large Thanksgiving dinner. I suffered from Hannah Montana Tryptophan-a.

But I am not the target audience for this cross-country tour. And I seriously doubt whether the little girls (and boys) who want to go to the concert are either. The real demographic this money-making machine is after are the parents of Hannah fans. They are the ones who will shell out boatloads of money for the concert tickets, and then pay even more at the actual event to secure their offspring a treasure trove of Hannah t-shirts, buttons, glowsticks and fake hair. They are the real losers in this scenario. Because in five years when they are still paying off the second mortgage they had to take out in order to attain the popular tickets, their offspring will have moved on to something completely different. Hannah will have faded into the background, much like David Cassidy did after “The Partridge Family” ended.

And let’s not forget that David’s reign as a concert King had a very tragic ending, when one of his devoted fans was crushed to death at a London concert. That pretty much put a kibosh on any future tours. Let’s hope the Hannah Fan-ahs don’t suffer the same fate.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Dark Comic Genius of Alec Baldwin

Alec Baldwin has always been a favorite of mine, ever since I first saw him in “Married to the Mob” oh so many decades ago. And despite his many embarrassing scandals in the press, I still consider him to be a great comic talent. His deadpan expressions and masterful delivery are one of the best things about NBC’s often hilarious, “30 Rock.”

On the show, Alec is basically playing the same arrogant and twisted character he played on “Will and Grace,” and several other sitcoms. But here he has elevated the persona to iconic status, forever insuring his place among television’s great comedic characters. Unfortunately, his problematic personal life threatens to undo all this. (I still cringe at the embarrassing phone message he left for his pig-faced daughter. Or rather, the daughter he called a selfish little pig, which is not exactly a term of endearment.)

Ironically, I’ve actually witnessed this darker side of Mr. Baldwin, when I happened to see him several years ago as he was coming out of the Equinox Gym on the Upper West Side. Dressed in a very unflattering grey sweat suit, and sporting a white towel around his neck, he looked like a pasty-faced donut maker rather than a Hollywood Leading Man. As he brushed past me talking on his cell phone, I couldn’t help but overhear his rather loud conversation. That’s because he wasn’t actually talking. He was sort of yelling. Screaming, actually. At someone I assumed must be his manager or agent, because the conversation sounded something like this:

“Don’t they know who they’re dealing with? Do they seriously think I would work for that? If they want Alec Baldwin, they’re going to have to come up with more money. I don’t do charity work.”

Ironically, the next time I crossed paths with Mr. Baldwin was at a rather swanky charity event we were both attending. Actually, he was the one attending it, and I was there to work. I was hired to play Batman for the event, which is not my specialty or anything; I just happened to be good friends with an event planner and he used to throw me these side gigs every now and then. Put on a costume, parade around a party for a couple hours, and go home with three hundred dollars. Humiliating, yes. Lucrative, sort of. Rewarding, no.

At one point during the evening, Alec breezed past me on his way to the V.I.P. area, and I saw him look at me for a moment. Was he about to say something clever or witty? Or perhaps engage me in a little friendly repartee? Dream on. I think he may have smirked at my costume, but that’s about it.

Later, I saw him sitting at the top of the stairs behind me, perhaps frowning down at my very existence. (See top photo, me in Batman suit with Alec sitting at top of stairs. Bottom photo, horribly pixilated close-up of Alec sitting at top of stairs. Is that a camera he’s holding? Is he actually taking a picture of the back of my costume? Yikes!)

Despite all this, I am still enamored of the man and his talent. His comic skills have been highlighted over and over again on “Saturday Night Live” and other TV shows, in films and theater, as well as his current brilliance on “30 Rock.” And though his personal life may be in constant turmoil, his life in front of the camera is nothing but winning.

But that’s just me. What do you think of Alec Baldwin?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

After the Fifties and Frankenstein, “The Ritz” Provides a Randy Romp

So far, the theater season in New York has been rather disappointing; at least for the shows I’ve seen. Beginning with the 100th revival of Grease back in August, the year began with a whimper rather than a bang. Truth to tell, I was actually looking forward to seeing this show, as I’d never actually seen the stage version of the beloved musical. The film starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John has always been a favorite of mine, so I had great expectations for the stage show as well.

And I’m sorry to say, I was a little let down. Not to say the Broadway musical is bad, because it’s not. But it’s not that exciting either. And I don’t think it’s the fault of the cast, because everyone is pretty good and true to their characters. They just don’t have much to work with. The songs are great, no question. But the book of the musical is so weak and senseless that the show sort of drags whenever someone isn’t singing or dancing. And I think that was probably the point when the show first premiered back in the 1970s. It was meant to be a nice nostalgic slice of life without much substance. But today, this same plot has been played out so many times that even “Hanna Montana” would find it dull.

So though I left “Grease” feeling like I’d just witnessed a show in need of a serious facelift, I was still hopeful that a fresh musical interpretation of the 1950s was just around the corner. Because the next event on my theatrical agenda was “Happy Days,” a new musical adaptation of the popular television series. Sounds interesting, right? I mean, how bad could a musical based on classic sitcom be? And as Hollywood heavyweights Gary Marshall and Paul Williams were attached to the project, I decided to give it a shot. Plus, it was playing at the nearby Paper Mill Playhouse, which meant I didn’t have to go all the way into the city to be entertained.

Unfortunately, I wouldn’t experience anything close to being happy at “Happy Days.” The premise of the show is so wafer thin, you might have swallowed it the last time you took Communion. It has something to do with Fonzie having to overcome his demons and pride just in time to help save Arnold’s Diner from being demolished. Along the way, the cast sings a series of easily forgettable songs with tunes that aren’t even catchy. That was my biggest disappointment with the show, as I was expecting the music to be fun and upbeat. But the songs were rather dull and not really memorable. Or even hummable. (Which was surprising to me, as Paul Williams had already written some wonderful period songs for my favorite children-as-gangsters spoof, “Bugsy Malone.”)

The other weird thing about the show was that some of the characters were portrayed exactly as they were in the television series, and some weren’t. Fonzie for example, is almost a carbon copy of Henry Winkler, even down to the mannerisms and vocal inflections. Then there’s someone like Ralph Malph, who is now fat and balding (at least the actor was) and trying very hard to be the class clown. Potsie, on the other hand, was the straight man, offering little more than vocal support during choral numbers.

The main focus of the show was Richie trying to help Pinkie Toscadero trying to help Fonzie trying to help Arnold, who is trying to save his diner. Then there’s the equally tired subplot of Marion trying to get some respect as a housewife in 1950s suburbia. Again, both storylines that might have been pulled from your typical ABC After-School Special, but not really much to sing about.

Taking a break from my foray into the fifties, I next went to see the dueling Mary Shelley inspired musicals, “Frankenstein” and “Young Frankenstein.” (Please see previous blog posting “The Case of the Dueling Frankensteins,” for my reviews on those particular shows.)

Now on to “The Ritz,” which I must admit I went to see with much lower expectations, having read several bad reviews of the show. But I have to say, of all the theater I’ve seen so far this season, this is the one I laughed at the most. From the very opening scene to the end, I was thoroughly caught up in the zany world of Carmine Vespucci and his plot to kill his brother-in-law, Gaetano Proclo. It was sometimes over-the-top and silly, but it also had a lot of heart, which was something sorely missing from the previous shows I’ve mentioned.

Not everyone is going to like “The Ritz,” especially if you have issues watching a show that takes place in a men’s bathhouse. But I thought it was hilarious. Rosie Perez is incredible as Googie Gomez. This is my first time seeing Ms. Perez on stage, and I was very impressed. This role was made for her. She is so committed and truthful in her portrayal, that you really feel for her character’s struggle and determination. Plus, her Act One Musical Homage finale is one of the funniest things I’ve seen on stage in a long time.

The other supporting characters are all very good too, with some stand-out performances from Brooks Ashmanskas as Chris and Patrick Kerr as chubby chaser Claude Perkins. There are plenty of hot male bodies to watch as well, including famous porn star Ryan Idol, who looks like a beefy Marlborough Man as he struts his stuff around the stage. The set is also amazing, an eye-popping display of doors and rooms amidst the winding hallways and cruisy caverns of a three story bathhouse. It’s a very entertaining evening, despite what some critics may have said. And luckily, it is one of only eight Broadway shows that are still running during the current stagehand union strike.

Next on my theatrical agenda will be Disney’s new power show, “The Little Mermaid.” That is, if the current strike doesn’t prevent me from seeing it. But my tickets aren’t until November 20th, so I’m sure I’ll be fine. I mean, they’ll be able to resolve all their issues in two weeks, right? Right? Hello? Is anyone out there?

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Is iTunes a Music Enabler?

When I was young and records were still in fashion, I remember the eager anticipation I felt when one of my favorite singers or groups released a new album. I would run down to the record store on the day it was released, find the most pristine copy, and then rush home to listen to the entire album in one sitting. And if I really liked it, I’d listen to it all over again. Sometimes for the rest of the day. (Much to the dismay of my parents, whose musical tastes were clearly different than my own.)

Then I went through a cassette phase, where I bought the cassette version of everything I already had on vinyl. After all, you couldn’t fit a 33” record into a Sony Walkman. Not unless you wanted to do some serious damage to your instrument.

After cassettes came CDs, which were much smaller and more convenient than records, and supposedly better quality than cassettes. I must admit I resisted this new innovation for a while, until the Walkman ate my cassette tapes one too many times. (How I hated having to stick a pencil through the spindles of the cassette to try and reel in the tape that had been pulled out.)

The transition to CD was rather easy, and I thought this would be the last time I’d ever have to update my musical collection to another format. How little I knew about technology. For several years after I made the switch to CDs, I was introduced to something called an iPod. And for a while, I must admit that I didn’t really understand the concept of an iPod. How could you hear music playing from such a little box without inserting a cassette or CD first?

The iPod presented a new level of musical appreciation—the ability to have your entire CD collection on one unit. Or at least as much of your collection as you could fit. And you could even create your own dance mix or playlist, so now everyone and their Grandmother had the opportunity to test out their latent DJ skills.

But the biggest musical revolution of the past few decades has got to be that wonderful online store that allows you to download your selections immediately. I’m referring of course to iTunes, which single-handedly changed the way people purchase music.

iTunes is like having your own private Xanadu, a “place that nobody dared to go.” No more running down to your nearest Tower Records to pick up the latest Billy Joel CD, or waiting for your latest package from Columbia House to arrive. In fact, no more running down to Tower Records at all, since the company recently closed its doors forever. (An obvious sign of what iTunes has done to the local neighborhood record store.)

It’s sad to think that music stores might soon become a thing of the past. All those aisles of CDs and Albums and Cassettes you once mulled over for hours have now been replaced by the convenience of a click. And how easy it is to click, especially when most songs only cost ninety-nine cents to purchase. Ninety-nine cents!!!! It’s incredible.

And what’s even better is that you no longer have to purchase a whole album if you only like a few songs. Now you can have your music a la carte. Which makes it so much easier to expand your musical tastes to other genres and artists you might never have considered before. Just browse, click on a song title, and after thirty seconds of sampling it, make the quick decision whether to download it or not. And since it’s only ninety-nine cents, what have you got to lose? If you decide later you think the song sucks, you’ve only wasted ninety-nine cents. (Except those ninety-nine cents really add up if you happen to be a compulsive clicker.)

Today, I have the largest collection of music I’ve ever owned. It’s massive, it’s comprehensive, it’s eclectic. But if you asked me a specific question about a particular song or the artist singing it, I’d probably draw a blank nine out of ten times. Because my music is no longer something I anticipate, or research, or know much about. It’s more spontaneous than that. With only a click, I can have instant gratification and a snappy tune. I don’t have to spend hours staring at the album cover, or reading all the liner notes. All those simple pleasures have now become a thing of the past. Replaced with an online jukebox that is not only convenient, but addictive as well. And therein lies the rub.

I’m Henson. And I’m an iTune-aholic.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Dear Disney, Make Mine a Magical Menken Musical

When I was growing up, I loved to escape into the fantasy worlds of Disney animated features. There were Heroes and Magical Creatures, Princesses and Villains, Talking Animals and Enchanted Puppets, and lots and lots of singing and dancing.

Then there was a long stretch of time when Disney animated films seemed passé, and going to horror films and serious drama was all the rage. I began to think of Disney as kid’s stuff and didn’t care about seeing those G-rated movies any more. After all, I was in college and wouldn’t be caught dead at a kiddie film.

Then "The Little Mermaid" hit the scene in 1989, and ushered in a new era of Disney animated films, featuring the music of Alan Menken and the lyrics of Howard Ashman. Finally, after decades of tuneless toons, characters were singing and dancing once again. In fact, with the emergence of “Beauty and the Beast” a few years later, musically enhanced cutlery replaced talking animals as the Toon Du Jour. And I found myself loving these movies. They again allowed me to escape into a fantasy world that was safe and happy and musical. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Then Mr. Ashman died in 1991, leaving Menken to work with other lyricists. He finished the musical elements for the movie “Aladdin” with the help of Tim Rice, and then worked with Stephen Schwartz on “Pocahontas” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” My personal favorite was the technically brilliant “Hercules,” which has a wonderfully upbeat score that I find myself singing even today.

And what was really cool is that the openings of these movies became major events. “Pocahontas” premiered in Central Park, “The Lion King” premiered at Radio City Music Hall, and “Hercules” premiered at the newly renovated New Amsterdam Theater, along with a huge electrical light parade and live stage show. The Disney animated cartoon had suddenly become the trendiest ticket in town. Everybody was going to see them.

But then it all of a sudden it stopped, and the Disney cartoon suffered a backlash. People complained of formula scripts that catered to singing and technical wizardry rather than the story and characters. And, of course, computer animation suddenly became the rage, and people began looking at Disney’s 2-Dimensional offerings as archaic.

So Alan Menken went on to write other things, and Disney stopped making musicals. Other than a few songs for the easily forgotten “Home on the Range,” there hasn’t been a big Disney-Menken effort in over a decade. And that is much too long.

I guess all this rambling leads to one thing: I want another big splashy Disney animated movie with a score by Alan Menken and lots and lots of singing and dancing furniture. Or whatever the latest inanimate object to come to life might be. An iPod? A Gameboy? A Blackberry? I don’t care what it is, as long as they burst into song for the big “Be Our Guest” type number, and shoot pixels fireworks all over their keypads.

Okay, enough rambling. Anyone else out there agree with me?

Sunday, November 4, 2007

We’d Like to Give this Sitcom “Back to You”

It seems like the must-see laugh-out-loud sitcom is slowly becoming a rare species. Except for “How I Met Your Mother,” "The Office," and the new “Big Bang Theory,” I rarely watch a sitcom these days and experience anything resembling mirth. Most of them seem like tired versions of older sitcoms thrown together in a blender, and spit out as something new.

A prime example of this is the aptly titled “Back to You.” Because after watching one or two episodes of this new Kelsey Grammer/Patricia Heaton vehicle, you’ll be saying exactly that. Not only is the show not funny, but watching it will give you an incredible feeling of Déjà vu. After all, isn’t Kelsey just playing Frasier with a new job? Instead of a talk show host, he’s now a newscaster? (That’s a big stretch.) And doesn’t it seem like Patricia’s character simply ditched Raymond and his obnoxious relatives to become a single mother?

My point is, I don’t see anything particularly original about this series, which still portrays Grammer’s character as a middle-aged self-absorbed snob looking for love in all the wrong places. I mean, am I missing something here? Is there a subtle character variation that I’m not seeing? If so, I must also be missing how different Heaton’s character is from the constantly put-upon wife she played in “Everybody Loves Raymond.”

It’s like when you go to a thrift shop and pick up a macramé belt from the sixties or a hideous velour shirt from the seventies. They’re so old and familiar, they’ve actually become chic again. I’m not sure if this is what they hoped for with “Back to You.” But the predictable scripts and rehashed scenarios feel like they’ve been gathered from yard sales and bargain basements. Quick and easy to find, but not necessarily satisfying in the long run.

This series would have been much more interesting if Kelsey was a middle-aged pre-op transsexual trying to break into local news, and Patricia was his tough lesbian boss with a heart of gold. Now that would have been worth getting back to you about.

Friday, November 2, 2007

To BEE, Or Not To BEE?

Last summer, when I first learned Jerry Seinfeld was starring in a full-length animated feature, I was intrigued by the possibilities. Would Elaine, Kramer and George show up as cameo Bees? Would the movie be as funny as his old series was? Or would it suffer the so-called Seinfeld curse?

While all these questions were swirling through my mind, I witnessed my first real preview of the movie. A long drawn out mini-sketch featuring Jerry in a Bee costume, being hoisted into the air. Not really funny, but this was a live-action skit after all. The real animated movie would surely be better, right?

Then came a few short previews of the actual movie, which started to look sort of cute. And funny. Or at least clever. But definitely something enjoyable to watch.

However, the same can’t be said for the recent advertising campaign featuring the terribly unfunny “TV Junior” skits. What the Hell is a “TV Junior,” anyway? Did anybody ever explain that phrase to us? Because something about it reeks of condescension. Does it mean the producers don’t think we’re ready for TV Seniors, because those type of commercials would go right over our heads? So instead, they decide to pander to the lowest common denominator with a TV Junior? I’m not sure, but I think I feel insulted.

In my opinion, the TV Junior commercials seem a little desperate. And not particularly funny. But maybe Jerry was afraid that unless he made an appearance in the commercials, people wouldn’t come see the movie. Like we might not be intelligent enough to accept an animated version of him, especially if it was in the form of a bee.

I can’t wait until this movie opens, but not for the reasons you might think. I can’t wait because then they’ll eventually pull all those obnoxious TV Junior commercials out of rotation. They’ve been bombarding us with promos for this movie for a year now, and I’m not so sure I even want to see it anymore. At least not until it comes out on DVD.

But if I go to the theater this weekend, am I also sending a message that TV Juniors are a good marketing tool? And would the industry then perceive this as the new “standard” in movie promotion, and inundate us with millions of them in the future? Or by staying home, am I pulling a Norma Rae without a significant cause to rebel against?

So that leaves me in a little bit of a quandary. To BEE, or Not to BEE? That is the question.

What think you, Fair Reader?

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Can You Solve the Famous Sideshow Murder?

Since it’s Halloween, I thought I'd try my hand at creating a little adventure. At a recent party, I came up with a Murder Mystery game that was tied to a series of Sideshow Carnival posters I happen to have in my collection. (See photos in sidebar. You can click on photo to make it bigger.)

The premise of the game was that the party was a reunion of Circus Performers, who had all once worked in the Sideshow as a Featured Attraction. As the guests arrived, they were each given an envelope with a number on it. The number corresponded with one of the posters that were hanging all over the house. (See Sidebar for poster images)

Once each of the guests figured out who they were, they were allowed to open their respective envelopes. Inside was a document containing a series of clues only they were privy to. With only these clues as their guide, they had to mingle with other guests, figure out who everyone was, and then try to figure out who the murderer was and who the victim was. (It is not stated specifically in any of the clues. But based on what you found out from other people, you could piece it together.)

So here’s your challenge. Below are all nine sets of clues. You have the advantage of seeing them all at the same time. From these clues and the posters on the right, you should be able to figure out who the Murderer and Victim are, and WHY the person was killed. Along the way, you will also discover many “secret” or “public” relationships that exist between the various party guests.

When you think you’ve figured them all out, click on the comments area below. The first comment will contain the answers.

Good luck! And no cheating.

1. FIFI—
You only want to speak to Frog Princess and Devil Child
Avoid Alligator Boy and Sword Swallower
You know something scandalous about someone you loathe
You feel very light-headed tonight, but don’t know why
You have asthma

2. Alligator Boy—
There is something obvious about the murder victim
One of the guests is your sibling, though you both keep it a secret
You had an affair with a man who’s still in the closet
You’re attracted to someone with special powers

3. Smoking Joe—
A clear head is very important
Avoid FIFI and Sword Swallower
Your ex-lover is here, and you had a very messy break-up
You like to hang out at sleazy establishments and pay for sex
You have a big secret you don’t want the public to know

4. Devil Child—
You are a psychic
You find FIFI to be fascinating
You’re having an affair with someone similar to you
Gay people make you uncomfortable
You sense a ghostly presence in the room

5. Viper Girl—
You have a similar skin type with a boy. Why is that?
You never talk to Fifi
You confronted someone you love about their homophobic boyfriend
Your best friend told you something shocking about another guest
One of the guests is an undercover reporter

6. Sword Swallower
You know one of the guests was blackmailing someone else, but who?
Avoid Fifi and Devil Child
You are married to someone who is very spiritual
You’ve hired a private detective to see if your partner is cheating

7. Fire Eater—
Someone lost something that is very important
You think Frog Princess is a phony and don’t mind telling her so
Sometimes you sell your body for money
Avoid Joe and Fifi
Your family has a history of respiratory problems

8. Frog Princess—
Two of the guests are brother and sister, though they keep it a secret
You are a Ghost Whisperer
You are married to one of the guests
You are having an affair with another guest

9. Worm Boy—
The murder victim was looking for something
You’re a private detective tailing someone to see if they’re having an affair
You met the killer in a sex club once
Avoid Fifi and Frog Princess
You have something in common with a critic of Frog Princess

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Case of the Dueling Frankensteins

This season, Broadway audiences have two versions of the Frankenstein story to choose from. Both are musicals, and both ironically, star one of the famous Foster children, Hunter and Sutton. And while each production is an original interpretation or reinvention of Mary Shelley’s classic novel, I don’t think either lives up to the hype surrounding it.

First, let’s start with the Off-Broadway production of “Frankenstein,” which was developed as a “bold new theatrical experience.” I think they’ve since dropped that tagline, calling it simply a “musical” instead. (After all, “Bold” and “Experience” is a lot to live up to.) The first thing one notices is that the set is constructed of what looks like wrought iron and piping. It is very stark, black and unnervingly dull, a foreshadowing of how the rest of the evening will play out. For this musical is not your typical uplifting songfest, but rather a bleak, stripped down version of a book that “tells” us more than it “shows.” So in a sense, the actors are reading us the book rather than actually showing us anything that happens.

The dramatic highlight of such a show might be the moment where the monster first comes to life, seeing how the doctor achieved such a feat. But in this version, that pivotal moment is glossed over with little more than a song telling us it happened. (And don’t expect any great make-up on the Frankenstein monster, either. He looks more like a bald leather man you’d see at a local gay bar, his green pallor traded in for a shaved head and some fetching chaps.)

The color palette for the show is black and grey, with a little white thrown in to make sure we can see the actors. The lighting is stark, the sets are dark, the costumes are dull, and the music is tediously slow. I will never understand why a musical interpretation of a gothic novel means the songs must be slow and plodding as if the only thing people sang in centuries past were ballad songs and funeral dirges. I’m not saying a musical about a living monster has to be upbeat, but at least throw in a tune once in a while that will keep us awake. With the black set, black costumes, slow music and little action, the show offers little to keep audiences in their seats. (At the preview performance I attended, many people left at intermission, including myself.)

Am I being unfairly mean to the musical? After all, it’s Off-Broadway. You can’t expect it to have the lavish production values of its older, bigger sister. But you can expect it to be entertaining. Or at least riveting. And though the stage was filled with talented performers, Hunter Foster and Christiane Noll among them, they couldn’t rise above the dreariness of the production.

That leaves us with “Young Frankenstein,” Mel Brook’s big sparkling new musical adaptation of his classic movie. The show has generated a boatload of hype, as anything connected with Mr. Brooks tends to do, and is easily one of the most anticipated shows of the season. So I went to see it expecting to be blown away, or at least have an evening full of laughter. And that is, I’m sorry to say, what’s sadly missing from this huge Broadway extravaganza. While it’s undeniably a lot of fun to watch, it’s just not that funny.

The sets are amazing, the costumes are great, the actors are all very talented, and the show is guaranteed to be a huge hit. Especially with out-of-towners. But the classic lines we’ve heard so many times in the famous films tend to sound flat when delivered on stage. The audience still laughs, but it’s more out of obligation. After all, there is nothing subtle about this production. The actors try very hard to punch the lines, deliver the gags and keep the action moving. But with little heart underneath it, there are long sections where the show is actually rather dull. Even with all the high tech scenery and effects to distract us.

Roger Bart is fine as the lead, though at times he seems to be channeling Mario Cantone with his high pitched screeching. Everyone else in the cast is also very talented, and sometimes there are moments of sheer brilliance (the hay ride scene and “Putting on the Ritz” number are highlights of the show). But the overall effect is like eating cotton candy. There’s a lot of fluff to look at, but not much substance when you actually begin eating.

But that's just me. If you have a different opinion about either of these shows, feel free to share it.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

You Have No Idea, I Think I Peed a Little, and Other Overused Jokes in Film and TV

Ever since Jeremy Irons uttered the famous words “You have no idea” in the movie “Reversal of Fortune,” the phrase has become a standard punch line in hundreds of movie and television scripts. It’s an easy joke, as you can put almost any question in front of it and you’re guaranteed a laugh.

“You’re a rather odd person, aren’t you?”
“You have no idea.”

“Is your mother a bad cook?”
“You have no idea.”

“This phrase is horribly overused, don’t you think?”
“You have no idea.”

You’ve probably heard this expression many times without even realizing it. Maybe you even laughed at the reference in every single sitcom it’s ever been employed in. But now that you’re aware movie and television writers use it repeatedly, you’ll be more tuned in to how many times you actually hear it.

Another phrase/joke that has been drummed into our heads is “I think I peed a little.” I can’t even remember what movie or TV show this first appeared in. But soon after that, the joke was used so many times it wasn’t funny anymore. The saying usually occurs when someone is laughing very hard and can’t seem to stop long enough to control their urinary functions. The first time it was used, it was very funny. The second time, it was mildly amusing. But now that it’s become a standard expression in pop culture, I’m beginning to wonder if our nation has a much more serious problem on our hands. Since so many people seem to be affected by Uncontrollable Bladder Syndrome.

My point is, I’m tired of writers going for the easy joke. When I hear the same kind of dialogue and jokes used over and over again, it’s an insult to my intelligence. It’s like saying “You’ve heard this joke before, but you’re so dumb, you won’t realize it’s the same joke if I change the words around a little.” Well, guess what? We’re not that dumb. We know when someone is ripping off an old joke to fill a space. It makes for boring television.

Sitcoms are the worst examples of repeated dialogue. The same writers tend to be moved around in Hollywood, shuffling from one sitcom to another, or one drama to another. So it’s understandable that they bring their same style with them from project to project. But do they also have to bring the same jokes? Can’t they come up with something original they haven’t used before? No wonder there aren’t many sitcoms on television right now. The writers have obviously run out of fresh ideas, and the public is tired of the same recycled material.

But that’s just me. What overused phrases have you noticed on TV or in films?

Friday, October 26, 2007

Confessions of a Closeted Collector

Some call it “nesting.” Others call it an “obsession.” Still others consider it a mental disorder and give you the number of a nearby psychiatrist. Whatever it is, the process of “collecting” has always been a part of my life. Even before I was consiously aware of doing it.

As far back as I can remember, I have been assembling items in groups. Comic books, movies, Disney memorabilia. Growing up, my room was filled with a mélange of items culled from various branches of my collection. Whatever I couldn’t put out on display was carefully packaged up in boxes and hidden away in the back of my closet, never to be seen from again until my mother forced me to clean it out.

You see, my mother had a philosophy that if you put something in a drawer or a closet, and you didn’t use it for more than a year, than you no longer needed it. Personally I never subscribed to that philosophy. I liked collecting things, so I would certainly never consider throwing anything away. Everything I bought, everything I owned, everything I was ever given, all became part of my massive “collection.”

The first thing I collected was Hot Wheels. They were my first true passion. I liked the pretty colors and the interesting designs on the cars. Lightning. Fire. Sparkles. The cars themselves were secondary. It was the paint job that took my fancy.

Then came the baseball card stage. Only I didn’t really collect traditional baseball cards, but rather the baseball card spin-offs. Things like Wacky Packages and Superhero cards. Or cards from popular movies and television shows.

I was manic about collecting them too, and sometimes couldn’t sleep until I’d successfully completed the latest series. But once the sets were complete, I usually put them neatly in a box and rarely looked at them again. I never ate the gum, either. It tasted like crispy chalk.

After the baseball card derivatives, I moved up to Scholastic books. Mostly because I really liked the process of ordering and receiving the books. I sort of lost interest when it actually came to reading them.

The process worked as follows: every two months or so you’d get a little flyer at school along with your Weekly Reader. The flyer would be filled with all the new books that Scholastic had for sale. You checked off the ones you wanted, handed the form back into your teacher, and four to six weeks later a big brown box arrived in your classroom filled with the books. Sometimes I didn’t even read them; I just added them to my “collection.”

After scholastic, I had an uncomfortable run-in with the Franklin Mint, which permanently stopped me from filling out order forms. Especially for things I couldn’t afford. Those “easy monthly payments” aren’t so easy when you only have a paper route for income.

So to avoid becoming financially bankrupt at the tender age of twelve, I finally settled on collecting simple things. Inexpensive things. Like comic books and plastic toys. Posters. Records. Tapes. Magazines.

When I first started making money as a graphic designer, I splurged on a number of Disney high-end porcelain figurines. They were so colorful and life-like that I just had to have one. Then one led to two. Two led to nine, and then seventeen, and then a hundred and forty, and that’s when I finally needed a storage locker. As well as someone to consolidate my credit card debt, because all those statues had apparently maxed my collection of VISAs to their limits.

On top of that, I had no room in my apartment to display any of these magnificent pieces of art, so most of them ended up in the storage locker. Their boxes collecting dust, their beauty hidden in the dark. My mother would have had a field day in that storage unit, tossing everything that didn’t move. Including me, no doubt, if I happened to get in her way.

But now I’ve moved into a new phase of my collecting. The selling process. I’ve finally managed to weed through some of the older branches of my collections to find things I can actually part with. And you know what? It’s quite lucrative. Some of my collections from childhood are reaping big rewards. Which means I’ve finally become something I never aspired to be—a smart businessman.

But that’s just me. What about you? What do you collect?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Totally Corny and Thoroughly Addictive World of “Dancing with the Stars”

By now, you’ve no doubt seen the very uncomfortable footage of Marie Osmond fainting into a messy slump on this week’s “Dancing with the Stars.” As millions of people watched on live television, America’s former Princess of Paper Roses did what every professional dancer hopes never to experience—loose her footing.

But oddly enough, that’s far from the most shocking thing we’ve ever witnessed on this television show. How about macho football stars like Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith prancing around in sparkly outerwear? Or Beatles extortionist Heather Mills doing the quickstep with only one leg? But my personal favorite was witnessing Mario Lopez pull himself up from “Saved by the Bell” obscurity to emerge as one of television’s hottest hunks. (I still think he was robbed of the title, though.)

When “Dancing with the Stars” first premiered several years ago, I greeted it with all the enthusiasm of a root canal. The cast list reminded me of the formula they would use on the old “Love Boat” or “Fantasy Island” shows, when they would stuff as many TV and movie has-beens into an episode and hope someone would remember them. The term “Star” had eventually gotten so tarnished from over-usage that anyone who appeared in even one national commercial could be featured as a major talent.

So I gladly skipped the first few episodes, not wanting to waste my time witnessing such an obvious train wreck. But then something weird happened. I turned in one day when nothing else was on, and found myself fascinated with the process. Not only did we observe stars humiliating themselves while learning the Tango, but we also caught glimpses of them tripping and falling down in the rehearsal rooms. I wouldn’t call it ground-breaking television, but it was certainly captivating. To see these B or C list celebrities showing such raw vulnerability while learning to do the Cha Cha provides some of the best behind-the-scenes exploitation since Madonna’s “Truth or Dare” in 1991.

After that, I was hooked. I even ventured into watching “So You Think You Can Dance” during the summer hiatus just to get my fix of sweat and adrenaline. And what I realized was that these two shows had single-handedly taken dancing out of the dark ages and given it a fresh new spin for the 21st Century. Not only that, but the often maligned art of Ballroom Dancing was suddenly cooler than Krumping. Dance studios across the country that were once in danger of cobwebs and wrecking balls suddenly saw a resurgence of eager novices dying to learn the intricacies of the Paso Doble.

And that’s what I find so entertaining about the show. It not only gives us weekly lessons on proper form and technique, but it’s also taught us a very valuable lesson--Dancing is not just for Sissies. There’s a lot of hard work and effort that goes into making it look so easy, and I have to admire anyone who attempts doing it. Even if I’ve never heard of them before. Because it doesn’t matter to me whether it’s a celebrity, a quasi-celebrity or someone like Mark Cuban learning the dances, I will gladly cheer them on for their bravery and determination. After all, it takes a lot of guts to wear spandex and sequins with a straight face on national television. And if it weren’t for “Dancing with the Stars,” I might never have known who Drew Lachey and Sabrina Bryan were. (Who?)

And don’t even get me started on the judges. Forget Len and Bruno, who seem to squabble more than an old married couple, the real star of that panel is Carrie Ann Inaba. If for no other reason than her name, which is so much fun to say. (Try saying it five times fast and you’ll begin sounding like a native Bostonian.)

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Codgers, Geezers, Biddies, and Bags

I've always liked this poem.

Codgers, Geezers, Biddies, and Bags,
Such horrible names for bodies that sag.
Surely their presence reminds us how we,
Will all soon become what we fear them to be.

What we see is a shell that is falling apart,
But inside remains the same mind, the same heart,
Their strength is in living, Their wisdom is age,
So do not dismiss them by turning the page.

They need to feel wanted, they want to feel need,
It’s a human desire, a hunger to feed,
Tap into their love, embrace what they give,
By using their knowledge, you’re making them live.

So give me a purpose to live all my years,
A dream to hold on to, to conquer my fears,
I’ve so much to offer, so much still to give,
Don’t count me out yet, I’m still here to live.


This poem is from the play "Quicker's Crackers" by Michael Latshaw. Poem used here with permission by author.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Is Lisa Williams the Next Jennifer Love Hewitt?

Is psychic ability real? Can people actually communicate with the dead? And most importantly, do Ghost Whisperers really exist or is Jennifer Love Hewitt the only one?

I’ve always had a fascination with psychic phenomenon and paranormal experiences, hoping that one day I might have a mystical encounter of my very own. But it seems like my psychic abilities are somewhat lacking, as the only thing I’ve ever been able to conjure up is a really bad case of acid reflux. And I don’t think I necessarily had to be psychic to do it.

So when Lifetime television began airing the Lisa Williams show, My Life Among the Dead, I was very curious to watch it. Though I must admit, I approached the show with a healthy amount of skepticism. After all, many famous psychics in the past have been publicly discredited. Or they’ve been shown to selectively edit their programs to make it look like they hit the mark 100% of the time. When in actuality, they were just guessing, hoping to strike a nerve with a general statement that might apply to anybody.

“Do you have a father?”

“Yes.”

“And a mother too?”

“Yes. One of each.” Cue for eyes to begin watering.

“Was your father taller than you when you were growing up?”

“Yes, Oh my God!” Cue tears rolling down the face.

“And did your mother ever cook dinner for you?”

“Yes. Wow! How could you possibly know that?” Cue total breakdown and wild audience applause.

Of course I’m being simplistic here, but you get the idea. With these kinds of generalizations, anybody could be psychic. Even George Bush.

So anyway, I began watching Lisa's show and found myself laughing more than disbelieving. Lisa herself is quite a jolly soul, her constant smile reminding me of the Cheshire Cat from "Alice in Wonderland." And I certainly can't deny her likeability. With her English accent and perky/nerdy personality it's impossible not to be fascinated by her.

Especially when she “randomly” approaches people on the street or in her local bakery. Those are my favorite sequences, because I sort of believe them and I sort of don’t. Particularly because she “casually” walks into these venues with an entire crew of lights and cameramen following her. I mean, are we really expected to believe she just happened to find a spirit playing among the donuts and bagels? Would the same thing happen if she went to the Korean Deli next door, or would there be some sort of language barrier?

I also love when people come to her office to be interviewed and she begins talking to spirits who are apparently in the room with her. “Thank you. Yes, thank you, I was wondering about that,” she says to voices that apparently only she can hear. And there I sit, mesmerized that there might actually be spirits guiding what comes out of her mouth. Because she “allegedly” pulls out some pretty intimate details from people’s lives.

The thing I want to know is how much information is Lisa actually given about the person she’s giving a reading to. Does she have their full name and where they’re from? Because the internet is a valuable resource and it would be so easy to find some kind of information on nearly anybody.

I do believe in spooks. I do. I do. I do believe in spooks.

I want to believe Lisa, because I certainly enjoy watching her. But I’m a skeptic at heart. How about you? Have you ever been to a psychic? How was it? Did you believe what he/she had to say, or did it feel like they were guiding you to reveal things before they actually pinpointed them? I’d be curious to know.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Fast Food is Slow Because of the Cashiers, the Cooks or the Customers?

Have you ever been to a fast food restaurant when the service was anything but fast? Instead, you stand in line for what seems like hours waiting for the cashier to take your order.

And though you try to remain calm, anger begins to build up inside you as you wait for one of the following: 1.) the newly trained cashier to figure out which button to push, or 2.) the overtaxed cooks behind the counter who like to throw food at each other while they’re working, or 3.) the other annoying customers in front of you who still haven’t figured out what they want, even though they’ve been standing in line for the last ten minutes staring at the menu. And then there's the customer who forgot they actually have to pay for the items they are ordering, so then you wait another five minutes while they dig in their purse or pockets to look for the exact change they need to pay for the meal.

I HATE FAST FOOD! And not just because it contributes to the obesity of America. I hate Fast Food because somewhere along the line it stopped being fast. Somewhere along the line, the fast was replaced with lines and apathy and boredom. We don’t go to fast food restaurants anymore because they’re fast; we go because we like to wait in line and be served by people who hate us for expecting speedy service.

But the ironic thing is that most of the employees who work behind the fast food counters are usually slow. They either look like they’re tired, or falling asleep, or actually sleep walking. There is nothing in their energy or work performance that suggests you are here for a quick meal. In fact, most of the time, they do everything they can to slow down the process.

One of my good friends used to work as a Manager for a Burger King restaurant when he was in college. And even though that was more than twenty years ago, he still feels the need to train fast food employees on what they’re doing wrong. (As if they really cared for his opinion.)

Recently, we went to a local Burger King for lunch, and when we finally got up to the cash register to order, the counter girl didn’t even greet us. She didn’t say “hello,” she didn’t say “may I take your order,” she just stared off into space as if our order was going to be transmitted telepathically.

But since my friend had no intention of ordering until the cashier greeted him properly, he simply stood there staring at her until she finally turned to look at him. She didn’t say anything, though. She just stared back, as if she was goading him to get even angrier.

“Hello, May I help you?” my friend finally said sarcastically, hoping this would jog the girl’s memory of her role in this transaction.

“Huh?”

“Isn’t that what you’re supposed to say? Hello, may I help you?”

“I guess. What do you want?”
My friend took a deep breathe before continuing. But not to place his order, mind you. He would rather spend his time at the counter making a few corrections to the girl’s work habits.

“You know, it would be much more efficient if you took several orders while you were waiting for the food to come up. That way you could move this big line along, instead of taking one order at a time and having us all wait while you slowly assemble their meal.”

The girl didn’t respond to what he said; she just stared at him with a blank expression as if he were speaking in tongues.

“But I suppose you already learned that in Burger King College, right?”

“What kind of drink did you want?” was the only response he got.

This launched him into a three minute tirade on the intricacies of good customer service that I had no intention of listening to again. It’s embarrassing enough when he complains about the service, but then when he actually confronts the cashiers with the complaints, I get queasy.

I left the restaurant and walked over to Outback Steakhouse, where I managed to sit down and have an entire meal before my friend was finally out of Burger King. (Apparently they’d messed up his order several times, and he was not going to leave until they got it right.)

So who do you think is to blame for poor service at most fast food establishments? Is it the cashiers, the cooks, or the customers?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Pardon Me Boys, Is that the LindsayBritneyParis?

(Sung to the tune of "Chattanooga Choo Choo")

Pardon Me, Boys,
Is that the LindsayBritneyParis?
All clubbing at Hyde,
Boy, can you get me inside?

I want to see…when they start dancing on the tables,
Snorting up Coke,
Or maybe taking a toke.

They cause immediate sensation when they go on the town,
The paparazzi treat them like they’re some kind of clown,
Photos are a mainstay,
Even of Vajajay,
Nothing is off limits with these girls around.

When the party’s over and they go to their cars,
Inebriated bodies that won’t get very far,
Someone drops a doobie,
Someone shows her booby,
Boy, these girls are better than a stripper bar.

They’ve gotta be…the favorite train wreck of the nation,
Six o’clock News,
Their stories give me the blues.

Hearing them speak, you’ll think they all came from the same damn clone,
Oh LindsayBritneyParis, won’t you please just stay home?

Celebrity Stalking in Reverse Leads to Humorous Complications

The term “celebrity stalker” takes on a completely different meaning in the popular weekly web serial “It Happened in Plainfield,” when actual celebrities like George Clooney and Julia Roberts are the ones doing the stalking. This is part of the premise of the fictional comic-mystery, which follows the quirky adventures of an average guy in NJ who discovers a secret society of celebrities watching him from the house across the street. Not only watching, but secretly helping him as well.

Besides Clooney and Roberts, other real actors like Tom Selleck, Ben Affleck and Ellen Degeneres also make appearances in the story, as does the Queen of Media herself, Oprah Winfrey. But what are all these famous faces doing in Plainfield? And why are they so interested in Henson? Finding out is half the fun, as readers come back each week to download the latest free chapter in this ongoing saga.

Since the website’s launch in April, “It Happened in Plainfield” has been entertaining a growing and loyal readership with its humorous narrative and unusual take on suburban living. Thirty-odd chapters have been released to date, with a new episode being posted every Monday. The story is expected to wrap up sometime in December.

“I look forward to it every week, like a soap opera,” says reader Miriam Ricker, who first learned about the story through a co-worker. “But I think the celebrities that are included should get a hold of this and just read the concept. It’s fascinating.”

The concept revolves around a group of famous movie actors who secretly form a philanthropic organization to help affect positive change in society one person at a time. Henson is one of the people they have chosen to help, though at first he doesn’t know it. Then a series of mysterious events take place that eventually lead him to the truth. But that’s only half the story. Along the way, Henson discovers a rival faction that is systematically trying to destroy everything the celebrities have tried to accomplish. But who are they and why is Henson caught in the middle?

“The premise of the story is purposely ridiculous,” says author Michael Latshaw. “And I think that’s why people are enjoying it. You know it’s not true, but there’s still a little part of you that wonders if it could all really happen.”

To find out more about “It Happened in Plainfield,” or to access the ongoing story, please visit http://www.ithappenedinplainfield.com

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Why I Don’t Play Video Games

I am always amazed when someone is willing to sit in front of a television set for hours at a time just so they can get to the next level of a video game. I myself have never been interested in this type of activity, because you don’t really win anything when the game is over. Sure, you get a cool cyber car to drive in, and you may live in a very expensive cyber home, with beautiful cyber kids and all the cyber money you could want. But so what?

Once you leave the television set, you also leave all those exciting acquisitions behind. It’s like the old adage, “you can’t take it with you.” Only in this case, you can’t take it anywhere, because none of it really exists to begin with.

Now if video games were constructed differently, and you really won something at the end of every game, I might never stop playing them. After all, I love to win stuff. I just like the stuff I win to be made out of physical materials, not colorful animated pixels.

It doesn’t mean I look down on anyone who spends their time this way, though. I just don’t have the energy myself to fight an army of cyber villains when there are so many other things to occupy my manpower. Like fighting an army of mounting bills, or slashing through an overgrown lawn. These are the true villains I fight on a daily basis. And the cool thing is, when I defeat them, I really do get satisfaction at the end. Because that’s one less bill to pay and a few more weeks respite from lawn mowing.

But I know I’m in the minority here. I have plenty of friends addicted to Playstation or Xbox who constantly tell me about their latest challenge or recent victory. Which is fine, except when they start talking about these cyber victories as if they were actual accomplishments, like going to Harvard or finding a cure for Cancer. One of my friends even went so far as to plan an engagement party for his upcoming nuptials to Princess Zelda of the Hyrule Royal Family. And he was serious about it too. (He has since been diagnosed with a complex psychological disorder, though he assures me he’ll be fully recovered before the wedding takes place.)

I do like the graphics in video games, though. As a graphic artist, I know what kind of work is involved in creating those incredible images. It ain’t easy. And the detail and imagination that goes into some of these games is incredible. But I’d much rather sit and watch the graphics go by, like watching a cartoon, than have to pick up a gamepad and participate.

But that’s just me. What about you? What do you like best about video games?

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Is Big Brother Watching You Through Your Cable Box?

My friend Ramona is an avid web-surfer, and has discovered a theory about the cable industry that seems fascinating. The idea is that the cable industry is in cahoots with the government, and your average ordinary cable box is actually used for monitoring people in their homes. It all sounds very "Big Brother" to me, and I'm sure there's nothing to it.

But being the creative individual that I am, I decided to explore what would happen if such a premise were true. So I wrote a one-act play called "Clark's Cable" that sort of explores this issue. It's short and sweet, so if you have a couple minutes, why not take a gander? (To access it, please click on the link below.)

CLARK'S CABLE

Enjoy!
Henson