The Greatest Comedian

Joe Gandelman has a great post at The Moderate Voice about the greatest comedian in television history, and probably one of the most influential for modern performers, along with Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce. Jack Benny ruled the radio and television airwaves for decades with a self-deprecating and seemingly effortless style that presaged the genre of observational comedy. Along with Groucho Marx, his timing was the key part of his mastery:

Jack Benny was one of the 20th century’s most beloved comedians: a star of vaudeville, the golden age of radio, movies and television. He actually invented the situation comedy on radio. And he could milk a laugh by scanning (slowly turning and looking at) the audience — extending a laugh seconds longer than any other comedian. He helped pioneer 20th century comedy that was more attitude than just setup/joke setup/joke. …
The Benny radio show was WAY before my time and I remember him mostly as a younger looking old man with a TV show in the 60s (this color clip is from that era), right before he left the air. But I have gone back and studied his radio programs and early TV and Benny performances on radio and TV are an instructional manual on verbal timing, body language and stage presence (notice how likable he is).

Joe also performs as a ventriloquist and comedian, and understands Benny’s genius. So did Johnny Carson, who idolized Benny and studied his timing. Carson used that to great effect, especially when jokes flopped during his routines. Carson, like Benny, would rescue the routine by joking about how bad the previous gag had been, remaining honest with his audience and inviting them to laugh at him and with him at the same time.
In fact, Benny did that more often than not. In his situational comedies, he was usually the butt of the joke. He surrounded himself with prodigious talent and then let them have the best of the situation, and often the best of the laughs. His generosity in that regard set him apart from most comedians of the age (and most performers of any age), and his comedy was all the better for it.
Joe has a YouTube clip of Benny and Mel Blanc. Be sure to catch it.

Suzanne Pleshette, RIP

One of the most talented performers in one of the greatest television series died yesterday. Suzanne Pleshette starred on stage and screen, but will always be best known as Emily, Bob Newhart’s smart and wise foil on The Bob Newhart Show:

Suzanne Pleshette, the husky-voiced star best known for her role as Bob Newhart’s sardonic wife on television’s long-running “The Bob Newhart Show,” has died at age 70.
Pleshette, whose career included roles in such films as Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and in Broadway plays including “The Miracle Worker,” died of respiratory failure Saturday evening at her Los Angeles home, said her attorney Robert Finkelstein, also a family friend.
Pleshette underwent chemotherapy for lung cancer in 2006.
“The Bob Newhart Show, a hit throughout its six-year run, starred comedian Newhart as a Chicago psychiatrist surrounded by eccentric patients. Pleshette provided the voice of reason.

The show followed The Mary Tyler Moore Show on Saturday night in CBS’ lineup. Both featured strong, professional women who didn’t need a man to define them. In contrast to the relentlessly single Mary Richards, Emily Hartley retained her own identity in a traditional marriage and usually wound up providing the sane center of a show with well-loved and almost archetypal zanies.
Suzanne Pleshette seemed remarkably equipped to portray Emily, and the affection she gained from viewers became obvious years after the show folded. In one of the best television twists ever, Bob Newhart chose to end his second highly-successful series by having Pleshette reprise her role as Emily while Newhart woke up from a dream, explaining away the entire second series. Audiences went wild over the ending and the chance to see Pleshette in the role one more time.
She also played unsympathetic characters with aplomb. The best example would be Leona Helmsley in “The Queen of Mean”, a somewhat exploitive TV movie about the notorious hotelier. Despite its overall tabloid feel, Pleshette made it worth watching with a combination of haughtiness and self-pity that completely reversed her persona as Emily Hartley.
Thanks for the laughs and the memories, Ms. Pleshette.

The Foregone Conclusion Will Get Broadcast Live

The NFL put an end to one of the dumbest controversies in politics this season, and an end to grandstanding by a Congress that has accomplished next to none of its own business. The league has decided to have CBS and NBC join the NFL Network in televising the final regular-season game of the New England Patriots:

After weeks of insisting they wouldn’t cave in, NFL officials did just that Wednesday. Now all of America can see the Patriots’ shot at history.
Saturday night’s game between New England and the New York Giants on the NFL Network, which is available in fewer than 40 percent of the nation’s homes with TVs, will be simulcast on CBS and NBC.
The Patriots could become the first NFL team to go 16-0 in the regular season.

Could? The Patriots have proven themselves as operating at another level, while the Giants have struggled to make the playoffs. Not only that, but the game means nothing to the Giants. They won’t risk their chances in the playoffs by getting Eli Manning or the rest of their starters hurt. They may play the first quarter, but after that the Giants will be giving their bench a warm-up for the postseason.
And why did the Senate get involved in this game? It may be stupid for the NFL to take its highest-profile games and reserve them for their own channel, but that would be their stupid decision and none of the government’s business. One can understand John Kerry pandering to his constituents, but Pat Leahy and Arlen Specter threatened the NFL’s anti-trust exemption as an extortive device to get them to break their exclusivity contract with a Boston television channel. If the anti-trust exemption is bad public policy, then Congress should revoke it, and if it isn’t, then Congress should quit using it as leverage to determine the league’s broadcast schedule.
Congress can’t even pass its own budgets on time. What makes any of them think they have the competence to run someone else’s business? If this is the new direction promised for the 110th Congress, then it’s a Wrong-Way Riegels.

The Birth Of Christ

Yesterday, I received an intriguing CD in the mail, a Christmas cantata with a powerful backstory. The Birth of Christ celebrates the Biblical story of the Nativity in soaring arias and beautiful orchestral music. That, however, only forms part of the story. Liam Neeson explains how Catholics and Protestants came together in an area of the world marked more by their bitter division to celebrate their shared belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior:

Public television will air the concert in the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but the DVD and the CD are available for purchase now. Today on Heading Right Radio, I’ll interview the composer, Andrew T Miller, and the producer, Raymond Arroyo, on how the Irish choirs of the two denominations came together to sing about peace and love, and why Miller felt compelled to launch his cantata in that manner.

My Bulls**t Guilty Pleasure

I have to admit it. I’m addicted to Bulls**t. You may wonder why that is such a surprise, given that I blog for a living — but in this case, I’m talking about the television show featuring Penn & Teller.
In fact, the show reminds me of the same kind of attitude behind blogging. The pair built their reputation as skeptics, and apply their skepticism to a wide range of topics. The show combines humor, outrage, and their libertarian point of view into a wild ride that (almost) never fails to entertain. Most of the topics involve politics to some degree, and a few more than most.
And just like with blogging, those political points of view can annoy and even enrage the viewer. Tonight, we watched Penn & Teller’s deconstruction of Mother Theresa from the show’s third season. We also sat through their show on Big Brother, which reviewed the Patriot Act as well as surveillance cameras. Obviously, conservatives and Catholics might object to some of what the hosts have to say on these subjects, and we did. Even while objecting to it, though, we found it entertaining and enlightening — just like the best of the blogs.
The third episode talked about colleges, diversity, and speech codes. That entry featured our friend King Banaian of SCSU Scholars, the chair of Economics at St. Cloud State University. Conservatives would love this episode, and not just because Penn & Teller allow King to be the voice of reason. They punk Noam Chomsky and a race-baiting diversity specialist — no, wait, two race-baiting diversity specialists. They show how universities have become indoctrination centers for the Left. And they’re hilarious the entire time.
Most times they’re dead right, a few times they’re dead wrong, but they never fail to entertain — and to make the audience think. It’s confrontational, direct, and fearless … just like the best of the blogs. If you haven’t had the opportunity to see the show, which airs exclusively on Showtime, try buying the DVDs.

What Was The Silliest Moment Of The 9/11 Truther Expose On History Channel?

I’m going to leave this as more or less an open thread for those who just watched The 9/11 Conspiracies: Fact Or Fiction? on The History Channel. Having read the Popular Mechanics book that debunks all of the pseudoscience offered by the Truthers, most of the rebuttals were both familiar and far too short in this program. I’m more interested in what CQ readers thought of the conspiracy theorists themselves.
The silliest and yet most revealing moment? That came near the end, when talk-radio host Alex Jones discussed his place in history (note: site may not be safe for your intellect). He told the History Channel that Galileo got persecuted when he told people that the Earth was round instead of flat. “I’m telling people the world is round!” he exclaimed.
Unfortunately, Galileo got persecuted for claiming that the Earth moved around the sun, not that the Earth was round. Learned people had accepted that the round Earth since the Greeks, and they had actually calculated the circumference with surprising accuracy. Ptolemy even came up with the system of longitude and latitude before Christ was born. However hilarious Jones’ assertion may be, it’s a great example of their scholarship.
What were your biggest laugh lines?
UPDATE: Clunkety-clunk Lady came in a close second in our household ….

CBS And Child Abuse

The entertainment industry has strict limits on how children can be used in television and film production. The government imposes workplace safety regulations, limits on working hours, and requirements for educational support, mostly based on abuse that occurred in the industry’s history. So why did CBS think that they could haul dozens of kids off into the New Mexico desert for a reality series that explicitly broke all of the rules?

The ads promoting “Kid Nation,” a new reality show coming to CBS next month, extol the incredible experience of a group of 40 children, ages 8 to 15, who built a sort of idealistic society in a New Mexico ghost town, free of adults. For 40 days the children cooked their own meals, cleaned their own outhouses, formed a government and ran their own businesses, all without adult intervention or participation.
To at least one parent of a participant, who wrote a letter of complaint to New Mexico state officials after the show had completed production, the experience bordered on abuse and neglect. Several children required medical attention after drinking bleach that had been left in an unmarked soda bottle, according to both the parent and CBS. One 11-year-old girl burned her face with splattered grease while cooking.
The children were made to haul wagons loaded with supplies for more than a mile through the New Mexico countryside, and they worked long hours — “from the crack of dawn when the rooster started crowing” until at least 9:30 p.m., according to Taylor, a 10-year-old from Sylvester, Ga., who was made available by CBS to respond to questions about conditions on the set.
Taylor and her mother, and another participant and his mother, all spoke enthusiastically about the show and said they believed the conditions on the set were adequate. But Divad, an 11-year-old girl from Fayetteville, Ga., whose mother wrote the letter of complaint and who was burned with hot grease while cooking, said she would not repeat the experience. She said there was no adult supervision of the cooking operation when she was hurt, although there often was an adult “chef” present in the kitchen.

New Mexico’s child protection services are not amused. They have indicated that had they known CBS had set up a residential facility for the children, they would have taken steps to ensure that CBS followed the law. In fact, the network never bothered to contact the Children, Youth and Families Department. The state sent a labor inspector to the set, but the producers didn’t allow an inspection to occur, according to New Mexico.
This takes child exploitation back to 1930s Hollywood. Regardless of whether CBS thinks this was some grand sociological experiment, the bottom line is that they had these kids working in harsh and apparently somewhat unsafe conditions for fifteen or more hours a day. They provided little adult supervision — in fact, that was the point of the production — and no educational support, even though this took place during a school year.
And for what purpose? CBS just wanted another cutting-edge reality series. They wanted “Survivor — The Elementary School Edition”.
And why New Mexico? Well, that’s where the story hits at the heart of CBS and Viacom, its parent corporation. New Mexico doesn’t have all of those restrictive laws regarding child labor in the entertainment industry. CBS scouted for a location where those restrictions would not interfere with their pursuit of a unique concept that would draw viewers and advertisers. Never mind that those laws in California, New York, and other entertainment centers protect children from exploitative conditions and physical harm.
CBS didn’t give a damn about the kids. They wanted the bucks. And they insist that even New Mexico’s regular child labor laws didn’t apply — because the children were not employed by the production. They didn’t get paid a dime for this blockbuster reality series on network television. Talk about exploitation! (via Instapundit)
Addendum: Yes, I’d like to know what the hell the parents were thinking, too. They should all get investigated by Child Protection Services for their apparently careless approach towards their children. Did the parents get paid off?
UPDATE: The kids did get compensation for this project. They received a $5,000 “stipend” as CQ commenter justme pointed out in the comments. But let’s put that into perspective. According to the description from the article, the children worked from dawn to after 9:30 pm every day for the 40 days they were at this camp. Assuming that means 15 hours of work a day, it amounts to 600 hours of work, or around $8:33 per hour — without overtime.
Using California overtime standards, however, it’s much less. The first eight hours get paid at straight time, but anything over than that is paid at time and a half, and anything over 12 hours at double time. That would mean pay-hours for each day would be not 15 hours, but actually 20. Eight hours would be straight pay, the next four would pay like 6, and the last three as 6, too. That actually makes their pay $6.25 per hour.
It also moots the CBS argument that they didn’t employ these kids.
UPDATE III: I do like Libby’s take at Newshoggers: “I expect their children learned more about responsibility and co-operative living from enduring the hardships, than they will by observing the parents trying to change the rules after the game has already been played.”

A Last Crack At The Sopranos Finale (Update/Bump)

The beauty and horror of HBO is that everything airs repeatedly, especially with the satellite HBO package, which has seven HBO channels. When they air Serenity or Thank You For Smoking, it’s a blessing, but pure torture with Date Movie. Over the last few days, I’ve had a chance to watch the Sopranos finale two or three more times, and I think I understand the ending much more clearly than before.

The key is the very beginning of the diner scene. When Tony first walks into the diner, he sees himself at the booth, and he’s dressed differently. He comes in wearing a drab gray shirt under his leather jacket, looking frazzled, but at the booth he’s wearing a different shirt [update: same shirt] and looking rather normal and relaxed. That’s the setup that tells us what happens in the rest of the scene is a fantasy, lived only in Tony’s mind.
What does Tony fantasize about? A normal family life. His son has become well-adjusted. His wife seems happy. But reality begins to intrude; Carmela starts talking about Carlo, and Tony notices the man wearing the Members Only jacket nervously.
The entire series has been about Tony’s attempt to fantasize himself as a normal family man. Since the first episode, Tony sought therapy as a means in which to resolve the conflict between his fantasy and his reality. He lived in denial of his true murderous, sociopathic nature for the entire arc of the series, abetted by Dr. Melfi, who actively tried to help him do so. He wanted his belief in his supposed goodness and normality to become his reality.
Instead, in this fantasy, Tony finally realizes that he’s deluding himself. David Chase throws in a red herring with Meadow and the parallel parking, but otherwise it’s all about Tony’s delusion crumbling. His daughter succumbed to his fantasy, giving up a career in medicine to defend people like Tony, whom the FBI supposedly persecute because of their Italian descent. His son now works for him and Little Carmine. His wife openly discusses the one brutal piece of reality that he most wants to forget — Carlo, the guy who’s probably going to put Tony in the joint for the rest of his life.
It’s not for nothing that fantasy-Tony plays “Don’t Stop Believing” at the jukebox. Tony has held tight to this fantasy of normality for years. It’s been the root of his depression and probably of his panic attacks, which started when he began the life; recall that Tony’s first faint happened when he was supposed to go do a heist with his cousin Tony Blundetto. His fantasy self is telling him not to end the delusion.
But that’s exactly what he does. Tony doesn’t get whacked in the final episode; Tony just kills the fantasy. That’s what the abrupt ending means, with the song cutting out at “Don’t stop –“. The delusion is dead — and Tony finally has to face reality about who he is and what is in store for him. The series’ main story arc has come to an end.
And that’s an ending that befits the series.
UPDATE: The First Mate had an interesting interpretation of Meadow’s parallel parking in the final fantasy sequence. She has been pulling away from the family at times, and at other times, in the same kind of denial as Tony. The back-and-forth of the parallel parking in Tony’s mind might reflect her vacillation, but in the end she joins the family fantasy. That might be what brings Tony to end the delusion — once she rushes into the diner, it abruptly ends.
UPDATE II: CQ commenter Jimboster discovers why I’m such a Sopranos fan — were James Gandolfini and I separated at birth? Only Vayapaso knows for sure …
UPDATE III: It could be the same shirt, as commenter mscala believes I’ve watched the sequence in slow-mo a few times, and it looks like a different shirt to me, but I could be wrong about that detail. I don’t think it undermines this analysis, though.
UPDATE IV: I’ve added the YouTube for the final 4:49 of the show. Tony walks into the diner, then the camera cuts to Tony’s perspective staring at an empty booth. It cuts back to Tony’s face, and then back from Tony’s perspective again, with Tony sitting in the previously empty booth. It’s a signal that we’re in Tony’s fantasy.
Here’s another series of clues. When Tony is waiting for Carmela and the family to join him, the camera focuses on three song selections on the jukebox. The first is “Who Will You Run To/Magic Man” by Heart. The second is “Don’t Stop Believing/Any Way You Want It” by Journey. The third is “I Gotta Be Me/A Lonely Place” by Tony Bennett. Tony chooses the second choice in his fantasy rather than the third; he doesn’t want to be himself, which would certainly put him in a lonely place. Unfortunately, Tony stops believing.

If You Thought The Sopranos Finale Was Brilliant …

… then you’ll also think that this suggested ending for the Harry Potter series shows artistic flair as well:

Each time the bell rang and another wizard walked into the pub, Harry looked up warily. Voldemort may have been dead, but there were still plenty of people who’d be thrilled if Harry was the victim of a Bat-Bogey Hex, or worse. Was that man in the corner booth, stirring sugar into his tea, from the Ministry of Magic? Or a Death Eater, burning for revenge? Or was he just some bystander who couldn’t help noticing the famous scar on Harry’s forehead?
Ron, his red hair cut short and a thin beard running along his jaw, came through the door and sat down. Harry took his hand for a second, a little overwhelmed. After the depression, and the suicide attempt in the fifth-floor prefects’ bathroom, it was good to see Ron happy again; his new office job with the Chudley Cannons quidditch club—and the German-made sports broom Harry had bought him—seemed to be improving his spirits.
Someone approached the table. Harry looked up, hoping it might be Hermione, but instead it was a pale, sneering young man who for a moment reminded Harry of Draco Malfoy. The man walked past Harry’s booth and entered the bathroom. Across the pub, a man with dark eyes laughed with a woman who reminded Harry of Bellatrix Lestrange.
Outside, a frustrated Hermione tried to tether Buckbeak the hippogriff to a street lamp, but Buckbeak was having none of it. He shook his eagle head angrily and pawed at the ground. Hermione sighed; she’d have to start with the bowing all over again.

Dan Kois does a good job of skewering David Chase in this satire. He even captures the one thing we know about the ending of the final Harry Potter book: the last word is scar, although in this instance, it means a lot less than one might have presumed.
This shows clearly why the ending to the Sopranos finale was so unsatisfying. When telling a story, people expect a fairly clear conclusion. Giving them a series of teases, and very obvious teases, without supplying any kind of payoff at all not only wastes the time of the reader/viewer, it also insults them for caring about what happens.
People have defended Chase’s decision by claiming that “real life has no endings”. True, but the Sopranos wasn’t about real life. It was a brilliant and maddening fiction, and since Chase was given the opportunity to actually conclude the series — most get cancelled without such an chance — the teases and the abrupt cut to black was a waste of that opportunity.
I still love The Sopranos, and still think Chase is brilliant. He’s not perfect, though, and he’s made some strange choices in the series. It’s unfortunate that his last stumble comes at the end of perhaps the best television series ever.

CBS: Couric’s Failure Due To Sexist Americans

Katie Couric continues as America’s Victim at CBS. Last month, CBS VP Linda Mason told its Public Eye blog that Couric’s lack of success came from an innate sexism in the America, which she said preferred to get its news “from white guys”. Yesterday, CBS made that their official stance when CEO Les Moonves told a Newhouse School of Communications group that people don’t want their news from a woman (via Memeorandum):

Leslie Moonves, CBS chief executive, on Tuesday suggested that sexist attitudes were partly to blame for the faltering performance of Katie Couric, the news anchor he recruited to the network with a $15m annual pay package.
“I’m sort of surprised by the vitriol against her. The number of people who don’t want news from a woman was startling,” Mr Moonves said of the audience’s reaction to Ms Couric, who this month brought ratings for the CBS Evening News to a 20-year low.
He reiterated, however, that he was committed to Ms Couric and that he believed her programme would succeed in spite of its last place standing behind rivals ABC and NBC. …
Ms Couric has managed a 2 per cent increase in women age 18 to 49 since her September debut. However, that has been more than offset by an 11 per cent decline among men over 55, who still constitute the bulk of the evening news’ audience.

Apparently, the decline in that last demographic has fueled the bunker mentality at CBS that paints Couric as the victim of a Neanderthal reaction. However, Moonves in the same speech acknowledged that CBS moved away from “hard news” when they replaced Bob Schieffer with Couric in favor of an emphasis on human-interest stories. Not only did that not attract a large following among younger viewers, but it turned off people who watch news to see … news. Given CBS’ poor demos on younger viewers anyway, even the 2% increase comes as a result of having almost nowhere to go but up.
However, admitting that CBS blew it when they screwed up the formula for the show would put the blame on Moonves for the failure. Admitting that they overpaid for Couric, who apparently brought very little of her Today audience with her to CBS, would also make Moonves look like an idiot. Therefore, Moonves and his team at CBS want to shift blame to the people they supposedly serve — the audience. It’s a strange strategy. Does Moonves really think that he can attract new viewers by accusing them of being chauvinist pigs?
It makes no sense, in any case. Plenty of women successfully anchor local news shows in big-market cities. They don’t appear to have problems with women reporting in any corner of the nation. CBS had Connie Chung co-anchoring with Dan Rather for a while (1993-95). They didn’t can her because the audience abandoned them — she got canned because Rather got jealous over her assignments, and also because Chung acted insensitively towards the Oklahoma City Fire Department in the wake of the 1995 bombing of the Murrah building. ABC has had Barbara Walters anchor the news for a brief period, and many women have featured roles on prominent news magazines, such as CBS’ Leslie Stahl and ABC’s Diane Sawyer.
Even if it were true — which it isn’t — then Moonves is still an idiot. Does he mean to inform Viacom shareholders that he gave Couric a $15 million salary without testing to see whether her gender would be a factor? I call BS. Somewhere, CBS has an entire file cabinet of focus group responses to Couric and/or a generic woman anchoring the nightly news. It would have either shown that the CBS Evening News would tank, if Moonves is correct about the high level of sexism, or it would show that it makes no difference.
If the former, then Moonves is a poor executive for making that kind of investment in a losing proposition. If the latter — which is a certainty — then the fault lies not with the audience, but with CBS for airing a stinker of a news broadcast. Moonves should stop spending so much time blaming his audience for their taste, and spend more time fixing his organization and the show.