Thursday, April 16, 2009

Madden cruises

No news is bigger around these parts today than the surprise announcement that John Madden — a national pop culture figure, but a Bay Area icon — is retiring after 30 years as America's most recognizable pro football broadcaster.

I was just scratching the crust out of my eyelids as the story broke on KCBS, San Francisco's all-news radio station, where Madden contributes a live interview segment every weekday morning. And, like many fans around the Bay Area and nationally, I found myself stunned by Madden's announcement, broadcast live.

Although my affection for the NFL product begins and pretty much ends with the 49ers — I don't often watch a regular-season game on TV unless the Niners (or, on occasion, the Raiders) are playing — I can't help but acknowledge the impact that Madden has had on the popularity of football. Or, for that matter, on the popularity of football in general — witness the continued success of Madden NFL, by all accounts the best-selling video game ever created. The former Oakland coach's bombastic personality and easy-to-imitate shtick has become ubiquitous in American culture. (Don't you just know that Frank Caliendo is weeping into his Miller Lite today?)

Mostly, though, I've come to know Madden through his long-running daily spot on local radio. For years, Madden joined legendary morning man Frank Dill's show on KNBR — well before that station transmogrified into "The Sports Leader" — for a spot of chat, usually about sports but often just about whatever Madden felt moved to yak about. During the season, Madden would check in from wherever he happened to be, often from the famed Maddencruiser, the tricked-out bus in which the airplane-averse commentator traveled from game to game.

When Dill retired, Madden couldn't stand Steve McPartlin, the former happy-talk TV host who replaced Frank on KNBR's morning drive. So, Big John took his act across the dial to KCBS, where he interfaced with venerable news anchor Al Hart. Even after Hart stepped down from the daily grind, he'd still pop up every Wednesday to bat things around with his old pal "Coach," whose morning foils now are anchors Stan Bunger and Susan Leigh Taylor and sports reporter Steve Bitker.

The hot rumor now is that Madden will go back to work for Al Davis's Raiders, possibly as general manager or director of football operations. I'd like to think that Madden has too much sense to subject himself to Al's senile shenanigans, but the two have remained close over the years. Anything's possible.

For public consumption, Madden is saying that he just wants to spend more time with his family. He and his wife are celebrating their 50th anniversary this year, and Madden's five grandchildren are at the ages where, as the Hall of Fame coach noted, they know when he's gone.

After 42 years in the NFL, and at 73 years of age (his birthday was last Friday), I think the big guy's earned the right to do whatever he pleases.

Happy trails, Coach.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

42

Happy Jackie Robinson Day!

Every player, manager, and coach in Major League Baseball will wear a uniform number 42 during today's games, in commemoration of the Brooklyn Dodgers' Hall of Fame infielder's breaking of baseball's racial barrier 62 years ago.

Robinson's number was permanently retired from active use by all MLB teams during the inaugural Jackie Robinson Day festivities in 2004.

For whatever reason, Jackie Robinson Day always reminds me of that classic episode of Sanford and Son, in which the always-scheming Rollo gives Fred a special birthday present: a baseball autographed by Jackie Robinson.

Upon examining his gift, Fred asks his friend, "Rollo, how do you spell 'Jackie'?"

"J-A-C-K-Y,"
replies a confident Rollo.

"That's right," says Fred. "That's how you spell 'Jackie.' But that's not how Jackie Robinson spelled 'Jackie...' you dummy."

The moral of this story: If someone gives you an autographed baseball for Jackie Robinson Day — or tries to sell you one on eBay — be sure you authenticate the signature.

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Sunday, April 05, 2009

What's Up With That? #74: Why do you think they call it "dope"?

You could get more idiotic than this, but not much.

At the same time that this story is being reported:
Farrah Fawcett hospitalized; family gathers at bedside
This story is only one headline away:
Son of Ryan O'Neal arrested in LA on drug charge
In case you don't immediately tumble to the connection, Ryan O'Neal's son Redmond is also the son of Farrah Fawcett.

According to the Associated Press, the younger O'Neal — who just last week was kicked out of a rehab facility after failing a drug test — was visiting an incarcerated friend at a county jail in Castaic (northern Los Angeles County) when he admitted during a routine search that he was carrying methamphetamine. Redmond is currently being held on $25,000 bail.

Dude... your mom is in the hospital dying of cancer, and you're busted smuggling dope into a jail?

I believe Mr. T. said it best... I pity the fool.

And I hope that Ms. Fawcett, who's been battling the Big C for several years, survives this latest setback — at the very least, long enough for her son the moron to get out of the hoosegow to say goodbye.

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Monday, March 30, 2009

New sheriff in Trebekistan

I'm several days late in getting to this, but, well, life happens.

Here's a belated yet heartfelt salute to Dan Pawson, who emerged triumphant in this season's Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions. Dan pulled out a hard-fought victory over two worthy co-finalists, Larissa Kelly and Aaron Schroeder, in the 25th Anniversary ToC taped at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

I had a premonition when I first wrote in this space — more than a year ago — about Dan's Jeopardy! skills that a Tournament title might be in his future. As it turned out, I was correct. That means next to nothing, however. I am notorious lousy at sizing up the field in Jeopardy! tournaments, even after having played in three of them. (For the benefit of any new arrivals, those three were the 1988 Tournament of Champions, Super Jeopardy! in 1990, and the Ultimate Tournament of Champions in 2005.) When you fill a room with top-level Jeopardy! players, anything can happen, and often does. In this instance, I believe that the strongest player came away with the grand prize.

Well played, Mr. Pawson. Congratulations also to Larissa and Aaron, who helped make this one of the most memorable two-game finals in ToC history.

Speaking of Jeopardy!, I just finished reading Bob Harris's excellent book, Prisoner of Trebekistan, in which Bob spins a hilarious, often surprisingly heart-tugging tale about his career as a Jeopardy! champion. I had the pleasure of meeting Bob during my second-round taping in the UToC, and he's every bit as charming and funny as his book would lead you to believe.

The fact that I personally relate to many of the anecdotes Bob shares added to my personal connection with the book, but it's a fun read even if you've never been a quiz show contestant. If you dig Jeopardy!, or simply enjoy a behind-the-scenes peek at the inner workings of television, I enthusiastically recommend Prisoner of Trebekistan.

Even though Bob neglected to mention me in it.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

American Idol is dead, and I'm feeling a little Taylor Hicks myself

In case you're wondering when SSTOL's traditional breakdown of the year's American Idol contestants is coming...



...don't hold your breath.

Seriously, this year's Idol class is far and away the weakest in the show's history. That's saying a lot for a series that has foisted such dubious talents as Kevin "Chicken Little" Covais, Carmen "Can't Buy a Tune" Rasmusen, Kellie "Dumb as Two Bags of Silicone" Pickler, and the infamous Sanjaya "Fauxhawk" Malakar on the American public.

Not only is there not a single performer (and I'm using that word loosely) in the AI '09 field whose CD I'd want to hear — never mind buy — but there isn't even one about whom I care enough to write an entire paragraph.

So I'm not gonna.

You're on your own, America.

SwanShadow... out!

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A retro ride in a Superstar Limo

Last night, I experienced one of those bizarre pop cultural crossover coincidences that happens every now and again.

I was browsing some Disneyland-related sites — because you know I loves me some Disneyland, and I actually will get to spend a few days in Anaheim this summer — when I decided to check out this YouTube video showcasing one of the Disneyland Resort's former attractions, Superstar Limo. At the very moment that the late-but-unlamented ride's Audio-Animatronic version of Drew Carey appeared on my monitor, my television — tuned at the time to a 17-year-old stand-up comedy special on HBO — displayed the youthful visage of Drew Carey, from way back before anyone knew who Drew Carey was.

How weird is that?

In case you're wondering what in the name of Walter Elias Disney I'm babbling about, Superstar Limo was one of the original attractions at Disney's California Adventure, the amusement park that now occupies what used to be the main Disneyland parking lot at the corner of Harbor and Katella in Anaheim.

A so-called "dark ride" in the classic Disney park model — think Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, or others of that ilk — Superstar Limo allowed the visitor to pretend that he or she was a celebrity riding to a big Hollywood premiere in (what else) a miniaturized limousine. Along the route, one encountered Audio-Animatronic versions of a number of then-current pop culture icons, including Regis Philbin, Cindy Crawford, Whoopi Goldberg, and the aforementioned Mr. Carey, who at the time of DCA's opening was the star of a hit sitcom on ABC (the network of Disney, as you are certainly aware).

Superstar Limo was roundly panned by DCA attendees — both for its corporate-pandering concept and its lackluster execution — and closed about a year or so after the park opened. The current Monsters Inc. attraction now occupies the space its short-lived predecessor inhabited.

My memory of Superstar Limo was that it was cheesy but fun in typical Disneyland fashion. The recording of the experience on YouTube bears this out, I think. The main problem I had with the ride was that, had it survived, it would quickly have become dated. How big a star is, say, Tim Allen or Melanie Griffith today, more than a decade and a half later? It would have cost Disney megabucks to continually replace passé show-biz personalities with celebs that kids, especially, would recognize — megabucks that Disney has shown little inclination to spend in its upkeep of the Disneyland Resort.

Still, it's a kick to recall what it was like while it lasted.

Potentially fascinating historical trivia: The original concept of Superstar Limo when DCA was in the development phase called for a simulated high-speed escape from a band of aggressive paparazzi. Then, the Princess of Wales met her untimely demise during... well... a high-speed escape from a band of aggressive paparazzi. Disney's Imagineers retooled the ride's storyline at the last moment to avoid the grisly and unfortunate connection.

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Monday, March 16, 2009

What's Up With That? #72: Sci Fi? I thought you said Hi Fi

In what must surely be one of the most ludicrous marketing gambits of all time, the Sci Fi Channel announced today that it is rebranding itself as "Syfy."

Umm... what?



According to Bonnie Hammer, president of Sci Fi's — excuse me, Syfy's — parent company, NBC Universal Cable Entertainment, "We couldn't own Sci Fi; it's a genre. But we can own Syfy."

Gotcha, Bonnie. Glad you've got your priorities in order.

Fanboys, geeks, nerds, and other societal rejects will be relieved to learn that Syfy (the channel) will continue to present Sci Fi (the genre), and that most of it will suck swamp water, in keeping with the channel's long-standing tradition.

In related news, the Food Network revealed today that it, too, is changing its name, after network executives discovered that "food" is a generic term for "stuff you eat." Henceforth, the channel will be known as the Guy Fieri Network.

Said a spokesperson, "We can't own food. But we can and do own Guy."

Also, FOX is reported to be searching for a pithy, trademarkable brand, now that evidence has come to light that "fox" is actually a small, furry, dog-like animal that lives in the woods.

More on this development is forthcoming.

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Monday, February 23, 2009

My awards show has a first name...

...it's O-S-C-A-R.

A few notes from last night's 81st Academy Awards ceremonies:
  • Pleasantly innocuous hosting job by Hugh "Wolverine" Jackman. The producers tailored the show to his strengths — he's a song-and-dance man, not a stand-up comedian. Jackman's style seems a better fit for the Tony Awards, which he's hosted several times, than for the Oscars, which attract a larger, more diverse audience. I doubt that the Academy Powers That Be will invite Hugh to host again, but I'm equally sure they're not sorry that they invited him this time.

  • I almost liked the smaller, more intimate set design. Having all of the nominees seated together and close to the stage worked well, especially for reaction shots when the winners were announced. The set-up did, however, give the event a confined, cramped feel. The Oscars need to be larger than life, not smaller than a breadbox.

  • Jackman's opening number with the cheesy props and Anne Hathaway — who is not a cheesy prop, despite her unsettlingly gargantuan eyes — was kind of fun. Billy Crystal has done similar openings to better effect in previous years.

  • Memo to Ms. Hathaway: If you have a preternaturally pasty complexion, a white evening gown is not your friend.

  • Memo to Nicole Kidman: Borrow Anne's memo when she's done reading it.

  • Best idea of the night: Using previous winners of the major acting awards to introduce the nominees. Some of the intros meandered on for a bit too long, and some of the choices didn't work as well as others. Overall, however, this was a gimmick worthy of repeating in future years.

  • Second-best idea: Queen Latifah singing "I'll Be Seeing You" over the traditional "Folks Who Croaked" montage. It added a touch of human warmth to an exercise that often just feels creepy and maudlin.

  • Among the winners, I was happiest for Kate Winslet, who has deserved to win at least a couple of times previously and came up empty.

  • Man, those people from Slumdog Millionaire were genuinely happy to be there.

  • Eddie Murphy seemed an out-of-left-field choice to present Jerry Lewis with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. They're both comic actors, but was there any other connection? Usually, they get someone who's a close friend of the awardee to give these special honors away. Maybe this was a sign that Lewis doesn't have any friends left in Hollywood.

  • What was up with the preponderance of dresses that looked like wedding gowns? Was someone getting married, and I missed my invitation?

  • Joaquin Phoenix is still wondering why Ben Stiller — and everyone else on the planet — is making fun of him.

  • Didn't win, but looked terrific anyway: Best Supporting Actress nominees Viola Davis and Taraji P. Henson. A couple of classy ladies right there.

  • Didn't win, but frightened small children anyway: Mickey Roarke and Tilda Swinton. At least Tilda comes by her looks naturally.

  • Hey, Amy Adams: Is that a necklace, or did you string together every bauble and bead at your local craft shop? You're lucky you didn't break a clavicle with that ginormous weight around your shoulders.

  • Speaking of ginormous: Angelina, please. The green stones. They are too large.

  • After seeing how much fun John Legend had singing "Down to Earth" surrounded by all of the Bollywood festivity of the two nominated songs from Slumdog, I'll bet Peter Gabriel feels like a moron for refusing to perform. And well he should.

  • I'll bet Bruce Springsteen would have enjoyed doing that bit too, had his song from The Wrestler been nominated, as it should have been.

  • Will Smith stumbled all over his TelePrompTer trying to give away the technical awards. Will, that Scientology foolishness is turning your brain into pudding.

  • Sean Penn, you are only about a third as cool as you think you are.

  • Am I the only one disappointed that Heath Ledger couldn't be bothered to show up to collect his Best Supporting Actor statuette? Hmm? He's what? Oh. Never mind.

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Monday, February 16, 2009

Super President's Day

What a joy to celebrate Presidents' Day with a President worthy of celebration!

Speaking of super Presidents...

This might be a good day to reminisce about Super President.

Super President was a short-lived animated series that aired on Saturday mornings in 1967 and '68. The show's title superhero battled the forces of evil using his power to transmute the molecular structure of his body into any substance he could imagine. (Think Metamorpho the Element Man, who debuted in DC Comics a couple of years earlier.)

In fact, Super President's morphing ability wasn't limited to forms of matter — I distinctly recall episodes in which he changed himself into things like electrical energy and radio waves.

When he wasn't fighting crime, Super President was... well... President.

You read that correctly. Super President's secret identity was James Norcross, the President of the United States.

By now, you've figured out the essential flaw in the Super President concept.

The most visible public figure on the planet becomes a costumed hero, and in order to protect his identity from supervillains, he gives himself a code name that advertises who he really is.

And no one ever figures this out.

Although he was not a DC Comics character, I always supposed that Super President must be the Chief Executive in the DC Universe, an alternate reality in which people fail to recognize that Clark Kent is Superman because Kent wears horn-rimmed spectacles, whereas Superman does not; and where no one realizes that Oliver Queen, the billionaire mayor of Star City, is Green Arrow, despite the fact that both the Emerald Archer and His Honor sport the same distinctive facial hair, and GA's only disguise is a domino mask.

Aside from the issue of its hero's pathetically obvious secret identity, the Super President series never dealt with how the Secret Service got comfortable with Norcross disappearing from the White House for hours at a time without accounting for his whereabouts. Fortunately for America, no international or domestic crisis ever arose at a moment when Super President was off adventuring, causing people to rush into the Oval Office and freak out because President Norcross was nowhere to be found.

Only the President's chief of staff, apparently a genius in a world of morons, ever sussed out who Super President really was.

Personally, I think President Obama would make a wicked cool superhero. If he was, however, I have a feeling that we'd figure it out.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Just another Friday the 13th

Did we really need a remake of Friday the 13th?

I mean, the past three decades have foisted umpty-zillion (okay, ten) sequels to that pitiful chapter in Kevin Bacon's résumé on the movie-going public. Now, New Line Pictures is remaking the original?

If the new flick is successful, will New Line remake each of the sequels too? Will we see fresh takes on such cinematic classics as Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, and the ever-popular Freddy vs. Jason?

Heaven help us.

Or perhaps that's the wrong phrase.

At any rate, the incessant commercials for the updated Friday the 13th put me in mind of the only facet of the Friday the 13th franchise worthy of revisiting...

Friday the 13th, The Series.

Those of you sufficiently long of tooth to have experienced the 1980s firsthand (and you know who you are) may recall this minor trifle of syndicated television history, which aired for three seasons beginning in 1987. Interestingly, Friday the 13th, The Series had nothing whatsoever to do with Jason Voorhees of hockey mask fame. Aside from the common title, the only connection between the film franchise and the TV series was the producer behind both: the semi-legendary Frank Mancuso, Jr.

When first he decided to bring his horror stylings to the idiot box, Mancuso, Jr. didn't intend to call his latest venture Friday the 13th. With partner Larry B. Williams, Mancuso developed the show under the title The 13th Hour. At some point before the series hit the airwaves, however, Mancuso decided (doubtless with a nudge from Paramount Pictures, which distributed the first several Friday the 13th movies) that it would be a shame to waste all that built-in branding, and thus Friday the 13th, The Series was born.

The show's plot revolved around the adventures of cousins Micki (erstwhile model and pop singer wannabe Louise Robey, billed only by her last name here) and Ryan (John D. LeMay, who would complete the circle by starring in Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday), who inherit their late uncle's antique shop. They soon discover that their uncle had sold his soul to the devil, and all of the objets d'art in the shop bore a Satanic curse. Micki and Ryan, aided by a magician and occultist named Jack, make it their mission to round up all of the already-sold curios before supernatural disaster befalls the people who now own these accursed items.

Needless to say, this mission often fails. Because, after all, horrific consequences are what Friday the 13th is all about.

And in truth, the events instigated by the bedeviled antiques were about as gruesome as anything on television prior to the advent of CSI and its spinoffs. With only a handful of exceptions, the people who came into contact with the haunted articles in each week's episode met grisly ends. (Because the show ran in syndication rather than on network broadcast, and was typically shown in the late-night, post-primetime hours, Mancuso and company were granted almost cable-like leeway to display graphic violence.) Even the show's protagonists were not immune: Ryan was written out of the series at the beginning of the third season, when he is de-aged into a young boy by one of the store's wares.

Although shot in Canada on a limited budget, Friday the 13th: The Series offered consistent entertainment for horror and fantasy fanatics. Familiar C-level character actors occasionally turned up as guest stars, and such talented directors as David (The Fly) Cronenberg and Atom (The Sweet Hereafter) Egoyan directed episodes.

Friday the 13th: The Series still turns up on cable and independent stations now and again, and I'm sure it's available on DVD. (These days, what isn't?) Fans of the current CW series Supernatural, which bears certain superficial resemblances, would probably enjoy checking it out.

It's got to be better than yet another Jason movie.

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Monday, February 02, 2009

The Swan Tunes In: Super Bowl XLIII commercial post-mortem

It's been something of an SSTOL tradition to recap the best commercials from the Super Bowl.

But a weird thing happened this year...

The game was actually better than the ads.

That is in part to the credit of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals, who delivered a whale of a show (congrats to Coach Mike Tomlin and his crew for the last-minute, come-from-behind victory over a team no one — including your Uncle Swan — thought could even compete with them). It's also a sad commentary on this year's Super Bowl ad crop, which was, to put it politely, lacking.

In fact, before I sat down to review the spots online this morning, only one had insinuated itself into my memory — the truly bizarre Cash4Gold.com ad featuring washed-up celebrities Ed McMahon and MC Hammer. That was memorable not for its persuasive power, but for its sheer breathless lunacy: Hammer and his "gold medallion showing me wearing a gold medallion!" and Big Ed with his gold-plated toilet.

Among the few other highlights:
  • I was entertained — and baffled — by Pepsi's testosterone-fueled spot showing manly men enduring all kinds of physical punishment with a casual "I'm good." (I confess that I don't understand the whole Pepsi Max concept: Diet cola for men? What, too much estrogen in Diet Pepsi?)

  • NBC gave us a clever house ad for its Hulu.com online video service, starring Alec Baldwin in a scenario inspired by Men in Black. (I always knew those Baldwin brothers were aliens.)

  • The most exciting ad of the bunch was Audi's slick, dialogue-free chase sequence with Jason Statham reprising his Transporter film role.

  • The "best storytelling" award goes to Cars.com's documentary-style take on the life of a nerdy young man who succeeds at everything he attempts, but who can't buy a car without the aid of a certain Web site.

  • Doritos offered a couple of decent spots: the one involving the "magic" crystal ball was funny, and another in which the protagonist's fantasies become reality every time he crunches into a Dorito (a female pedestrian's clothes disappear; an ATM spews cash) was predictable, but well-orchestrated.

  • NBA star Carlos Boozer played Big Brother to a gaggle of cute kids for Overstock.com. Not as splashy as most of the ad fodder, but warm, fuzzy, and authentically charming. Best of all, it made a solid selling point about the product — something too many of the high-ticket Super Bowl ads forget to accomplish.

  • And, though I'm not a Conan O'Brien fan, I did chuckle at the goofy Bud Light spot that featured Conan as the reluctant star of an absurd Swedish commercial.
As usual, the Budweiser Clydesdales wore out their welcome — one ad showcasing these handsome animals is fine, but four or five get old quickly. Also as usual, GoDaddy.com served up a pair of tasteless, sexist trifles designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator (arrested-adolescent males who've been swilling beer all afternoon) and rile up the feminist crusaders.

But enough about the commercials...

It's Boss Time.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band cranked up the best Super Bowl halftime since Prince took the stage a few years back. The Boss and Company delivered a fun, upbeat, energetic set, weaving together a couple of classic favorites ("Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," "Born to Run") with the title track from his latest album. (Asked in a pregame interview why he had finally decided to accept the Super Bowl gig after more than a decade of refusing the NFL's invitation, Springsteen was characteristically forthright: "I've got a new record to promote.")

The production pulled out all the stops — fireworks, a five-piece horn section, and a gospel choir for the finale. All the fluff couldn't mask the raw power of Springsteen's music, nor the joy that he and his bandmates (including Clarence Clemons, who worked it out on saxophone and cowbell; guitarist Miami Steve Van Zandt, looking aged and road-worn; and Bruce's wife Patti Scialfa, who stepped forward for a backing vocal spotlight on the final number) still derive from their music after 35 years.

I'd have gladly ditched all of the fancy advertisements, and just let The Boss play during the commercial breaks.

That's why they don't let me run the show.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Swan Tunes In: Trust Me

Following on the award-winning critical success of AMC's Mad Men, TNT is serving up its own spin on the daily lives of advertising executives in its new series, Trust Me. I checked out the premiere episode the other night, and I have to say that I was surprised and impressed.

Having worked as a freelance advertising copywriter for the past six-plus years, I was curious to see whether Trust Me captured what I believe to be the essential characteristic of the industry: That all advertising people are insane.

And yes, they've got that pretty well nailed down.

In its lead roles, Trust Me casts a pair of actors whose work doesn't usually interest me: Eric McCormack (formerly the gay half of Will and Grace) and Tom Cavanagh (late of Ed, which enjoyed a moderately successful run, and Love Monkey, which didn't). They're a Felix-and-Oscar team of ad creatives: McCormack's Mason McGuire is the graphic artist and the steady, level-headed one; Cavanagh's Conner (who doesn't appear to have another name — the sign on his office door reads simply "Conner") is the copywriter and the wacky, unpredictable one.

When their creative director dies suddenly, Mason is promoted to his position, threatening the delicate balance of his working partnership with Conner. The duo also encounter conflict from Sarah, a newly hired superstar copywriter brought in to shake up the firm — she's played by Monica Potter, who looks as though she'll be even more annoying here than she was on Boston Legal. (In this role, Potter's irritating quality is character-appropriate. When Sarah attempts to persuade her former boss at her previous agency to take her back, he tells her, "I think I'm going to hire someone I don't hate.")

Although I've never worked on staff at a major ad agency, Trust Me accurately reflects the dynamics of most of the agencies I've come to know. Again, that basically means that all ad creatives are nuts. Trust Me plays that angle more directly for humor than does Mad Men, which leans to the dramatic. Specifically, much of the comedy derives from Conner's foibles — he's an only-slightly more mature version of the Tom Hanks character in Big, an overgrown adolescent whose childish behavior is offset by his creative brilliance.

As noted above, I'm not a fan of either Cavanagh or McCormack, but they're well-cast — and ideally matched — here. Their supporting cast, in addition to Potter, includes Griffin Dunne, who improves anything in which he appears, just by showing up. The show's debut script displayed a deft hand, employing that over-the-top comic reality that worked so well in the early seasons of Ally McBeal. (This isn't a David E. Kelley production, but it has some of the flavor.) If the writers can sustain the quality, Trust Me could join Mad Men as a perennial award contender.

Uncle Swan gives Trust Me four tailfeathers out of five. I recommend giving it a look-see.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Does this casket come with soft Corinthian leather?

Wow, bad day for aged celebrities.

No sooner did I complete my obit of Patrick McGoohan than word arrives of the passing of Ricardo Montalbán, who, depending on your viewing preferences, was either Khan Noonien Singh of the classic Star Trek episode "Space Seed" and its sequel motion picture, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, or the dapper Mr. Roarke, the ice-cream-suited master manipulator of Fantasy Island.

We children of the '70s, of course, also recall Montalbán as the suave pitchman for the Chrysler Cordoba, famously upholstered in "soft Corinthian leather." The joke was that "Corinthian leather" was little more than some copywriter's snazzy buzzword for a product manufactured in Newark, New Jersey.

I often thought that Mr. Roarke had the most depressing job in the world. He spent all of his time and resources creating fantasies for other people — fantasies which never seemed to work out all that well for the recipients. Then, he'd cluck his tongue at the hard lessons learned when people got what they thought they wanted. Roarke was like a sadistic Santa Claus, albeit with bespoke tailoring and better weather.

To top it off, Mr. Roarke never seemed to get any of his own fantasies fulfilled. Unless his fantasies involved living on a tropical island with a lisping French dwarf. In which case, I guess he did.

My favorite episode of Fantasy Island was the one in which Mr. Roarke faced off with the devil (who, oddly enough, did not resemble Al Pacino) and emerged victorious. That storyline opened up a whole new realm of possibilities for Roarke, who prior to this had just seemed like a wealthier, more inventive Walt Disney. Was he really an angel? A sorcerer? A Highlander? (There can only be one, so probably not.)

Then again, the devil did tell Roarke at the end of the episode that he'd be back to fight again another day.

Perhaps that day was today.

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Be seeing you, Number Six

Don't tell Number Two, but Number Six has escaped.

Permanently.

Patrick McGoohan, a hero to a generation of genre TV cultists as the star of the classic espionage series Danger Man (retitled Secret Agent for American broadcast on CBS) and its even more famous "sequel" The Prisoner, has died at the age of 80.

For those of you who missed the 1960s, The Prisoner starred McGoohan (who cocreated the show with producer George Markstein) as a spy who, after submitting his resignation, is kidnapped and transported to an isolated seaside community known only as The Village. The protagonist, whose real name is never divulged, is referred to as Number Six. (Most fans suppose Number Six to be John Drake, the hero of Danger Man, even though McGoohan consistently denied this — most likely because someone else owned the rights to the earlier character.) Indeed, all residents of The Village are known only by numeric designations, including the sinister head honcho, Number Two (played by a different actor in almost every episode).

The 17-episode series revolves around Number Six's ongoing efforts to either escape — efforts often thwarted by an enormous, seemingly sentient balloon called Rover — or subvert Number Two's authority and control of The Village, or both. Number Two, in turn, engages in a constant stream of cat-and-mouse mind games, trying to learn why Number Six resigned his post (and, by implication, for whom Six might have been working).

In a memorable two-part finale, Number Six finally manages to break free of The Village's confines. Or does he?

I'm a member of that hardcore band of pop culture geeks who maintain that The Prisoner is one of the greatest series ever created for television. It's smartly written, thought-provoking, and can be interpreted in a variety of ways, depending upon one's political perspective and psychosocial worldview. Its 17 episodes span a broad range of genres — mystery, action-suspense, comic satire, even Western (the episode "Living in Harmony").

Thanks in large part to McGoohan's rigid control, the show maintained a high quality level, even though it ran longer than McGoohan originally proposed. (CBS insisted on 17 episodes, to ensure an afterlife in syndication — McGoohan conceived the show as a seven-episode cycle.) The Prisoner frequently explored themes that were considered controversial for the time: conspiracy theories, government mind control, propaganda, psychedelic drugs, anti-authority rebellion, and anti-war sentiment.

When I was studying broadcast communications at San Francisco State University, I took a course in semiotics — the study of symbols and signs as facets of the communication process — taught by one of the world's leading experts in the field, Dr. Arthur Asa Berger. Episodes of The Prisoner were among Dr. Berger's favorite teaching tools.

Ironically, Patrick McGoohan's passing comes shortly before the debut of a modernized retelling of The Prisoner, which airs later this year on American Movie Classics. The new Prisoner stars Jim Caviezel as Number Six, and Ian McKellen as his adversary, Number Two.

McGoohan continued to be much sought after as a character actor for decades following The Prisoner. He gained critical acclaim as the villainous King Edward, a.k.a. Longshanks, in Mel Gibson's Braveheart, and as the father of Billy Zane's jungle superhero in The Phantom. My favorites among his post-Prisoner roles were his frequent turns as perpetrator on Columbo (McGoohan won two Emmy Awards for his Columbo appearances, several of which he also directed), and his starring turn in the short-lived 1970s medical series Rafferty, which foreshadowed House by about 25 years.

Despite his impressive body of work, McGoohan will always be Number Six in my imagination.

"I am not a number — I am a free man!"

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Thursday, January 08, 2009

There's a new zombie in town

I'm not an especially sentimental sort — as regular visitors here will attest — but it makes me sad to see the icons of my youth fade from view.

Just moments ago, I received an e-mail announcing the passing of Bob Wilkins, the longtime host of KTVU's Creature Features. I spent many Friday and Saturday nights in the 1970s and early '80s enjoying cheesy horror and sci-fi flicks with the urbane, bespectacled Mr. Wilkins and his eventual successor in the host's rocking chair, John Stanley.

More than four years ago, I waxed nostalgic in this space about Creature Features and its profound impact on my adolescent years. Rather than reinventing the torture wheel, I'll simply invite you to check out that Halloween 2004 post.

I was privileged to meet Bob Wilkins in person a few years ago, when he made what I believe was his final guest appearance at WonderCon. Bob was obviously in ill health at that time, so I was glad that I took the opportunity to express to him my thanks for all the hours of entertainment. I'm even more glad now.

Keep that coffin lid tightly closed, Bob. You never know what might be trying to get in.

Or out.

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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

It's hard in Oakland for a pimp

The Hughes Brothers speak the truth: "Oakland is a pimpin' town."

Apparently, the only people who won't acknowledge that truth are in Oakland city government.

Allen and Albert Hughes, most often referred to collectively as the Hughes Brothers (because their last name is Hughes, and they're... well... brothers), are fraternal twin filmmakers best known for their uncompromising depictions of urban street life, as portrayed in their dramatic films Menace II Society and Dead Presidents, and the documentary American Pimp. (The Hughes Brothers also masterminded the comic book adaptation From Hell, starring Johnny Depp as a 19th-century London detective stalking Jack the Ripper.)

The latest Hughes project is an upcoming HBO drama series entitled Gentlemen of Leisure, about a middle-aged pimp struggling with the responsibilities of fatherhood and family life. The series is set in Oakland, and the Hughes Brothers are eager, for the sake of verisimilitude, to film the show on location.

So far, Mayor Ron Dellums and the Oakland City Council are having none of it. The council has to date refused to approve the Hughes Brothers' permits to begin filming on the streets of Oakland. According to Mayor Dellums, a TV show about pimps doesn't fit his vision of what Oakland is.

Never mind the fact that the rest of the world — including a slew of big-name hip-hop artists from Oakland — sees the city exactly that way.

It's no secret to anyone who follows American popular culture that Oakland is one of the hubs of the hip-hop/rap scene, which has made a cottage industry out of "pimps and hos." (The hip-hop crew Three 6 Mafia won the Academy Award for Best Original Song four years ago, for the song "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp.") Hyphy, an entire "brand" of hip-hop music and style, originated in Oakland and its surrounding communities. Rap pioneer Too Short, perhaps the biggest hip-hop star to arise from the East Bay scene, built his entire career explicitly proclaiming the glories of the pimping life in Oakland.

The Oakland city fathers may not like that image. It's disingenuous, however, to deny that it exists, or to stand in the way of legitimate artists documenting it.

For their part, the Hughes Brothers have stated that if the City Council won't grant them permits to lens Gentlemen of Leisure in Oakland, they'll move the production to another city, while leaving the show's fictional setting in Oakland. That means another community will benefit from the economic uplift and job creation that follows a major television production, while struggling Oakland will lose out, even as its likeness — for better or worse — is portrayed onscreen.

If you can't change perception, Mayor Dellums, you may as well pimp it out.

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Saturday, January 03, 2009

Gimme dat wine

It's true — you really can find just about anything on the Internet.

Had I doubted this truism, the presence of not one, but two Web sites devoted to the cheap, alcohol-fortified wines favored by Skid Row denizens — the folks we used to call "winos" back in the day — would convince me.

Bum Wine — you really can't get less politically correct than that — focuses its attention on "the Big Five" wines targeting the habitual drunkard: Cisco, MD 20/20, Night Train, Wild Irish Rose, and the legendary Thunderbird. The site couples hilarious commentary ("If you like to smell your hand after pumping gas, look no further than Thunderbird") with the results of decidedly unscientific tests ("Some of our researchers indicated that [Night Train] gave them a NyQuil-like drowsiness, and perhaps this is why they put 'night' in the name").

Among the evaluative information to be found at Bum Wine: Thunderbird is the worst tasting of the Big Five, but Cisco (a product of which I was heretofore blissfully unaware) is to be preferred for its intoxicating qualities. MD 20/20 — or "Mad Dog," as it's known in certain circles — generates the highest degree of internal warmth for the consumer.

The writing style at Bum Wine reminds me of Las Vegas on 25 Cents a Day, a terrific place to get unvarnished information about the absolute cheapest eats, lodging, and entertainment in America's favorite vacation destination. I'm reasonably certain that the two sites are unrelated, however.

In case Bum Wine is just a mite too refined for your tastes, there's Ghetto Wine, which mostly forgoes the witty commentary in favor of a photographic record of the Big Five, as well as past and present products of similar ilk — including Fred Sanford's beloved Ripple. (Children of the '70s will recall that Fred recommended a mixture of ginger ale and Ripple, a concoction he dubbed "Champipple.")

Being a teetotaler myself, I can't attest to the veracity of the data on either of these sites. I'm also a bit incredulous that the folks most inclined toward the consumption of fortified wines conduct their market research online.

I do, however, recall a summer job during my high school days, when I was employed as a stock clerk at a gas station mini-mart. One of my chief responsibilities was replenishing the refrigerated case in which the beer and wine were displayed. Our tiny shop did a land-office business in T-Bird (along with slightly less toxic, but equally cheap, potions such as Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill and Annie Green Springs Country Cherry) that summer.

I can't shake the feeling that somewhere in the Great Beyond, Fred Sanford is raising a paper cup of Champipple in salute.

As the venerable radio jingle used to trumpet: "What's the word? Thunderbird!"

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Thursday, January 01, 2009

The Westlake postscript

Well, this was a sad way to end a year...

Donald E. Westlake
, one of the great mystery novelists of our time, died yesterday.

Westlake was a prolific creator who wrote in a variety of styles, from the comic caper novels he wrote under his own name, including The Hot Rock (adapted into a 1972 film starring Robert Redford), to the gritty crime novels he wrote under the nom de plume Richard Stark, most featuring the brutal criminal mastermind known only as Parker. Westlake's first Stark/Parker novel, The Hunter, was filmed twice: as Point Blank (with Lee Marvin) in 1967, and as Payback (with Mel Gibson) in 1999.

My favorite Westlake books were a series of mysteries he wrote in the late 1960s and early '70s, about a self-loathing former cop named Mitch Tobin. Mitch was a fascinating character — his partner was killed when Mitch failed to provide him backup during a bust, because at the time of the incident, Mitch was in bed with the partner's wife. Consumed by guilt and depression, Mitch withdrew from everyday life, occupying his time by building a useless brick wall in his back yard. On occasion, he would get dragged into some circumstance that compelled him to exercise his detective skills.

I believe the five Mitch Tobin books, which Westlake wrote using the pseudonym Tucker Coe — Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death; Murder Among Children; Wax Apple; A Jade in Aries; and Don't Lie to Me — have all been out of print for years. But if you stumble across one of them at a used bookstore, a garage sale, or your local library, and if you enjoy a good mystery featuring a dark yet quirky protagonist, I recommend them.

My favorite Westlake-as-Westlake book was his 1976 novel Dancing Aztecs. Like many of his stories, it's a crime caper wrapped in comedic trappings, featuring a gang of hapless crooks who can't seem to do anything right. The title refers to the book's McGuffin, a set of 16 identical statues, only one of which is the real (and valuable) McCoy. Another must-read, if you get the opportunity.

When he wasn't writing books at a phenomenal rate, Westlake also dabbled in screenplays. He received an Academy Award nomination for The Grifters, a terrific caper flick directed by Stephen Frears, the screenplay for which Westlake adapted from a Jim Thompson novel. Westlake also wrote the 1987 horror classic The Stepfather, which made a cult star out of Terry O'Quinn nearly two decades before Lost.

In addition, Westlake created the legendary TV flop Supertrain, which almost bankrupted NBC in the fall of 1979. But then, to quote the title of a 1977 Westlake novel, Nobody's Perfect.

Somewhere on my bookshelves I have an old book entitled Murder Ink, containing all manner of interesting trivia about mysteries and their authors. In that book, Westlake conducts a hilarious and informative interview as himself as well as three of his literary alter egos: Richard Stark, Tucker Coe, and Timothy J. Culver, under which name Westlake penned a political thrilled called Ex Officio. I'll have to dig that out and reread it in Westlake's honor.

Thanks for all the unforgettable stories, and especially those wonderful characters, Don. I'll miss you.

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Praise the Lord, and pass the balut

As I write this post, I'm watching a rerun of Bizarre Foods on the Travel Channel.

In case you're unfamiliar with this delightful program, allow me to enlighten you. In every episode, chef Andrew Zimmern journeys to some foreign land (although a handful of shows have been filmed in various parts of the U.S.), finds the weirdest stuff that's being eaten by the local folk, and eats it.

And trust me, there's a lot of weird stuff being consumed on this big blue marble. Hence, Bizarre Foods.

In the episode I'm viewing, Andrew is in the Philippines. Longtime SSTOL readers will recall that I spent a chunk of my youth — two years, to be precise, from October 1973 through October 1975 — in that east Asian archipelago. Seeing this program brings back memories of places I visited, such as the cities of Manila and Pampanga, as well as the Filipino people.

And yes, things I ate.

As Andrew discovered, one of the popular cultural delicacies of the Philippines is balut, a common breakfast food and snack. Balut is a fertilized chicken or duck egg, with a partially developed embryo still inside the shell.

I know, I know. Just hang in there with me.

The eggs are boiled on the 18th day following fertilization — I'm not sure what the difference would be if you cooked one on the 17th or 19th day, but that just isn't done — then sold whole in the shell. The diner cracks open one end of the shell, slurps out the juice, then peels off the shell and consumes the baby fowl — eyes, beak, feet and all.

Now to Westerners like you and me, balut definitely sounds like the least acquirable of acquired tastes. In the Philippines, however, balut is comfort food, like your mom's meat loaf or macaroni and cheese.

When we first arrived in the country, we lived outside the confines of Clark Air Base in Angeles City. Bright and early every morning just at sunup, a fellow would come strolling down our street carrying two buckets full of steaming hot balut suspended from a stick slung across his shoulders. The neighborhood people would stream out of their homes at the call of "Ba-looooot! Ba-looooot!" Breakfast was served.

Now, I consider myself a fairly adventurous eater. I'm no Andrew Zimmern, mind you, but I'll sample almost anything once. I drew the line at balut. I feel certain that line has not moved in 30-plus years.

It's worth mentioning that balut is not characteristic of Filipino food in general, most of which is not bizarre in any respect, and is actually quite tasty. If you're serving up a banquet of sinigang, chicken adobo, pork mechado, pancit with shrimp, and fried lumpia, save me a chair.

I'll leave the balut to Andrew Zimmern.

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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Catwoman's last groove

Not to rain a bummer down on your Yuletide or anything, but...

Eartha Kitt died today.

You young whippersnappers know Ms. Kitt as the voice of Yzma in The Emperor's New Groove, one of the best Disney animated films of the past decade, and its spin-off television series, The Emperor's New School.

Those of us with a few miles on our odometers knew that the multitalented Ms. Kitt possessed many facets. She was an actress; nominated for two Tony Awards, she was a favorite of actor-director Orson Welles (on and off the set, or so the whispers tell). She was a singer; ironically, given her death on Christmas Day, her best-known musical number was the original rendition of the pop-jazz carol "Santa Baby." She was a social activist; her scathing remarks condemning the Vietnam War at a White House function reportedly reduced Lady Bird Johnson, the then-incumbent First Lady, to tears.

Eartha Kitt broke barriers in a number of ways, perhaps most memorably in 1967, when she took over the role of Catwoman in the hit Batman after Julie Newmar left the show. "Color-blind" casting is relatively common today — think of Denzel Washington in the remake of The Manchurian Candidate, to cite just one recent instance — but in the '60s, it was practically unheard of that an African-American actor would be cast in a role written for a Caucasian.

Kitt's turn as the Felonious Feline was all the more remarkable in that the character's race was never made an issue. No one on Batman ever seemed to notice that the new Catwoman was black. Again, unheard of in mid-20th century Hollywood.

Kitt's tradition-shattering portrayal opened possibilities for countless other actors to be chosen for roles for which they might never have been considered — such as Halle Berry in the title role in Catwoman.

Umm...

Let me think of a better example.

How about Michael Clarke Duncan as the Kingpin in Daredevil?

Yeah, that works.

Back to Eartha Kitt...

In addition to her work behind the Disney microphone (for which she earned her second Daytime Emmy just a couple of months ago), the legendary star spent her later years performing her popular cabaret act, acting in the occasional stage production (she toured as the Fairy Godmother in the national company of Cinderella a few years back), and battling colon cancer.

She died less than one month shy of her 82nd birthday.

As the great Ms. Kitt might have said herself... meow.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Santa's little helper

Still struggling to come up with that last-second Christmas present?

Have a stocking or two yet lacking a bit of stuffing?

Can't figure out what to give the man or woman who has everything?

Is that what's bothering you, bunkie?

Just remember this simple three-word phrase, and all will be well:

Everyone loves Money.


Your Uncle Swan included.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

What's Up With That? #68: Unkempt afterwards

This struck me as a rather peculiar news item.

Sean Avery, a player with the National Hockey Association's Dallas Stars, made the following statement to a group of reporters covering the Stars' game earlier this week against the Calgary Flames:
I am really happy to be back in Calgary. I love Canada. I just want to comment on how it's become like a common thing in the NHL for guys to fall in love with my sloppy seconds. I don't know what that's about. Enjoy the game tonight.
As the sporting press dutifully acknowledged, Avery's ex-girlfriend, actress (and as an ardent fan of 24, I'm using that word with extreme accommodation) Elisha Cuthbert, is dating a Flames defenseman named Dion Phaneuf.

Apparently, Avery disapproves.

But perhaps not as much as NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman disapproves of Avery's choice of metaphor. Bettman suspended Avery indefinitely for "inappropriate public comments."

Now, this seems weird to me on several levels. Allow me to elucidate.

When I first heard about Avery's indiscretion, the news account simply stated the charge, without publishing Avery's exact words. I presumed that he had used one of the two four-letter Anglo-Saxonisms for the female reproductive anatomy (let's call them the "C" word and the "T" word) in reference to Ms. Cuthbert. I was taken aback somewhat when I learned what term he'd actually used.

Is "sloppy seconds" profane? Crude, yes. Uncomplimentary, without question — though I think I may have used stronger terminology to critique Ms. Cuthbert's acting talents (or utter lack of same) on at least one or two occasions. (All right, you've got me — every week for the first three seasons of 24.)

But a chargeable offense? Seems extreme to me.

Unlike the "C" and "T" words, however, I'm fairly certain that you could use the expression "sloppy seconds" on primetime network television. (Not that you should. I'm just saying.) It was the title of a Dr. Hook album way back in 1972, for crying out loud. If you could put it on the cover of a pop album (not to mention the cover of the Rolling Stone) 36 years ago, I'm sure you could probably get away with it on Two and a Half Men today. (If anyone would know about "sloppy seconds," it would have to be Charlie Sheen.)

I was also puzzled by the fact that Avery tossed this remark off (no pun intended) in an interview with journalists in a locker room. (Do they call it a locker room in hockey, or is it a clubhouse? Not sure. Not caring. Moving on...) Was this really the first thing Sean could think of to say when confronted with a battery of microphones? Whatever happened to, "We've gotta play 'em one game at a time... the guys are really pulling together... that's the way the puck slides sometimes... sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes the Zamboni breaks down"? Did this man never see Bull Durham? Crash Davis to the Stars' locker room, please.

For that matter, why are there reporters in a hockey locker room, interviewing players? Does anyone care what hockey players have to say? I mean, the Sharks might be the best team in the NHL right now, and you don't hear Joe Thornton or Jonathan Cheechoo babbling inanities about their ex-girlfriends — or anything else — on the local sports talk station. We know how to keep our Canadians under control here in the Bay Area.

And one other odd thing...

There's an ice hockey team in Dallas?

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

What's Up With That? #66: Design on a Dyme

This apparently happened several months ago, but I first read about it yesterday over at Rocketship of the Mind (thanks, Sean!). So it's not really news, but if I'm just now hearing about it, it's news to me, right?

My wife KJ loves watching the endless array of home improvement programs on HGTV. One of her favorite shows there is Design on a Dime, in which teams of interior decorators reinvent rooms in people's homes using a maximum budget of $1,000. (I know, they should have entitled it Design on a Grand. Don't ask me why they didn't.)

At least, KJ used to enjoy that show until a year or two ago, when several of the featured designers were replaced with newer talent whom she didn't like as well.

Now, I've come to find out that one of Design on a Dime's former stars, one-time Disney Imagineer Lee Snijders, has embarked on a new career...

...as a purveyor of Internet pornography.

Lee and his paramour, a porn star-turned-photographer who goes by the name Jett Angel (I say "goes by the name" because I'm making the not-too-audacious leap of logic that there isn't a Mr. and Mrs. Angel somewhere in the American heartland who named their offspring Jett, thereby predestining her to a future in adult entertainment) have launched a Web portal called Goth Rock Girls, which according to a published press release, is:
an 'all-girl' punk rock porn site shot in hi-definition with a high end 'reality' format that shows the two producers as a power couple who bring these girls to life as they hold their cameras and direct the action.
Which is probably more than you wanted to know.

One can only wonder what thought process would take a guy from successful ventures in amusement park design, domicile decor, and mainstream cable television to creating... well... whatever that description was in the preceding paragraph. Fortunately, Snijders hastens to explain:
I tried to continue my relationship with HGTV by pitching them show ideas, but unfortunately they were not interested and the company did not renew my contract. I found myself auditioning for design shows with models and actors posing as designers while my competitors got their own shows on HGTV. With the housing market crash and being stereotyped as a budget designer, I stayed flexible, open minded, and moved on.
That's quite a move, all right.

I'm hoping that Lee didn't intend "flexible" as a double entendre. Then again, perhaps he did.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The $9 million Danish

I wish I could steal the headline composed by Lance Bradley, writer for the poker magazine Bluff: "The Riches of Eastgate."

But I won't.

Congratulations to Peter Eastgate, who in the wee hours of this morning became the youngest-ever winner of the World Series of Poker's Main Event.

Eastgate dominated the so-called November Nine, routing the final table in convincing fashion. The 22-year-old from Odense, Denmark held off a worthy challenge from Russian pro Ivan Demidov to capture poker's highest prize, the gold World Champion bracelet and the $9 million cash that accompanies it.

You can catch the highlights of the final table, with scintillating commentary by Lon McEachern and Norman Chad, tonight on ESPN starting at 8 p.m. EST.

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Sunday, November 09, 2008

If it's November, these must be the Nine

After a four-month break, the Main Event of the 2008 World Series of Poker is once again under way, its nine-man final table having reconvened earlier today at the Rio in Las Vegas.

Personally, I think the new format for the Main Event — which played from 6,844 entrants down to nine back in July, before taking a planned hiatus — is ludicrous. With everything that's happened in the sports world (the Summer Olympics, the World Series) as well as the real world (the plummeting economy, the Presidential election) during the past four months, you'd have to be a hardcore poker fanatic to even remember that the tournament was resuming today, much less still be interested.

Which tells you something about me, I guess.

As I compose this post, the November Nine have already been whittled down to the Magnificent Seven: Craig Marquis, a 23-year-old from the Dallas area, busted out in ninth place (Craig was eighth as play resumed), and Kelly Kim, a poker pro from southern California, departed in eighth place (Kelly had been the final table's short stack).

The remaining players, as they rank at this moment, are:
  • Ivan Demidov, a 27-year-old poker pro from Moscow (Russia, not Idaho), who last month finished third in the WSOP Europe Main Event in London.

  • Ylon Schwartz, a 38-year-old former chess prodigy from New York City.

  • Peter Eastgate, a 22-year-old pro from Denmark.

  • Scott Montgomery, a 27-year-old pro from Ontario, Canada.

  • Dennis Phillips, a 53-year-old trucking company executive from St. Louis. Dennis was the chip leader at the start of today's play.

  • Darus Suharto, a 39-year-old Indonesian-born Canadian accountant.

  • David "Chino" Rheem, a 28-year-old pro from Los Angeles, and probably the best known of the November Nine prior to July.
Tournament officials expect to have a winner sometime tomorrow night, or early Tuesday morning at the latest. A two-hour condensation of the final table play will air Tuesday night (and endlessly thereafter, if tradition holds) on ESPN.

Let's shuffle up and deal!

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Ex-Ex-List

I see that CBS has canceled The Ex-List.

This does not surprise me. Although I never watched the program — apparently, I wasn't alone — from the time that I first heard about it, The Ex-List struck me as having perhaps the most limiting premise in the history of television.

Here's the synopsis: A young woman (played by Elizabeth Reaser, whom I recall from a bizarre little film entitled Stay, which I once reviewed for DVD Verdict) visits a psychic to find out whether she will ever meet her soulmate. "You've already met him," says Madame Zenobia. "In fact, you've already dated him."

Thus, our lissome heroine is told that she has only one year to revisit all of the men with whom she has ever hooked up, trying to suss out which reject was really Mr. Right, before she misses her chance at wedded bliss forever.

Being as intelligent as you are, friend reader, I know that you have already divined the pair of inherent obstacles.

Problem the First: If you have any hope at all that your series will last longer than one season, you don't saddle it with a premise that practically screams to be canceled within twelve months.

Problem the Second: Calendar constraints aside, how many seasons could you keep this show on the air before the audience loses all sympathy with the main character?

The average network drama films 22 new episodes each season. If Ms. Ex-List has to reconnect with one former beau each week, that means she's had at least 22 partners by her early 30s (star Reaser is 33). Okay, that's doable. (No pun intended.)

But let's suppose that the producers get lucky (again, no pun intended), and the show survives for Year Two. By the end of the second season, our heroine has racked up (someone please turn off the double entendre machine!) 44 dudes worth of sexual history.

If The Powers That Be gave the series a third year, Reaser's character would be well on her way to becoming the distaff Wilt Chamberlain. CBS would have to start shrink-wrapping the DVD box sets in latex.

Better to quit while you're... oh, never mind.

Then again, how many boy-toys did Kim Cattrall's Samantha toss out of the sack like mucus-sodden Kleenex in all the years that Sex and the City was on?

I think my middle age is showing.

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Monday, October 13, 2008

What's Up With That? #65: Bring me the head of Drew Carey

Just when I think I've heard everything, my beloved San Francisco takes the insanity to another level.

The SFPD evacuated a Battery Street building this afternoon because a man walked into a law office with a make-believe bomb strapped to his waist.

The reason for this act of urban terrorism?

Apparently, the perpetrator was incensed because he had been turned down as a participant on The Price is Right.

No one knows what connection, if any, exists between the targeted law firm, Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein LLP, and the popular CBS game show.

Upon hearing the news, TPIR host emeritus Bob Barker reportedly said, "This is why you should have all your rejected contestants spayed or neutered."

The yodeling mountain climber from the Cliff Hangers game could not be reached for comment.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Lord Bowler's final frame

I was sorry to read just now that actor Julius Carry passed away yesterday, reportedly from pancreatic cancer.

Fans of genre cinema will remember Carry as Sho'Nuff, the self-styled "Shogun of Harlem" in Berry Gordy's The Last Dragon, the cult classic action flick that swirled together martial arts, hip-hop, and one-time Prince main squeeze Vanity. Sho'Nuff's shtick was asking the members of his criminal posse such questions as "Am I the prettiest?" or "Am I the meanest?" so the gang could holler back, "Sho'Nuff!"

My favorite Carry role, though, was the colorful bounty hunter Lord Bowler (so dubbed because he always wore a bowler hat) in the all-too-short-lived science fiction Western The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. (Think The Wild, Wild West with a '90s sensibility and no Will Smith.)

Carry appeared opposite the legendary Bruce Campbell — veteran of numerous Sam Raimi films (including the Evil Dead trilogy, in which he played wisecracking antihero Ash Williams) and currently the costar of USA Network's outstanding spy series Burn Notice — as the title character's skeptical sometime-partner in his search for the outlaws who murdered Brisco's U.S. Marshal father. Brisco was also obsessed with finding "the coming thing," the discovery he believed would usher in the modern age.

If you missed Brisco County during its original run in the nascent days of FOX, it's well worth checking out on DVD. Both Campbell and Carry are excellent in the series, which also featured TV veteran John Astin (the original Gomez in The Addams Family). It's a unique blend of genres, and one heck of a lot of fun.

Hope you found the coming thing, Lord Bowler.

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Monday, June 23, 2008

The class clown goes down

This paean to the late, legendary George Carlin will not include any words that you can't say on television.

(Although, to be accurate, two of Carlin's infamous Seven Words are now spoken on television with relative frequency, and as august a personality as Jane Fonda pitched out the four-letter word beginning with "C" on the Today Show just a few months ago.)

The immediate irony of the news about George Carlin's death (Carlin would mock me from the grave for using a euphemism like "passing") was that Cranky George videotaped his final HBO comedy special, It's Bad for Ya, here in Santa Rosa the first weekend in March. Even though the show was being taped locally, I settled for the live cablecast, since I already pay for the subscription. Now, I'm a little sad that I didn't go and pay homage to the great humorist while he was still with us.

I first became hooked on Carlin's comedy in my junior high school days. I still have my original vinyl copies of all of his classic albums from the '70s — Class Clown; FM & AM; Occupation: Foole; Toledo Window Box; An Evening with Wally Londo Featuring Bill Slaszo; On the Road; plus 1981's A Place for My Stuff. Even now, I can rattle off many of those outrageous routines and rants verbatim. (I tend to bowdlerize them a trifle when I repeat them, but still.)

Carlin is often mentioned in the same breath with such fellow comics as Redd Foxx, Lenny Bruce, and Carlin's contemporary Richard Pryor because they all employed an abundance of profanity and risque subject matter. That is, in my view, a shallow evaluation of all four performers. Foxx's bawdy routines were "inside baseball," targeted at a specific audience that had few resources for uncensored comedy. Pryor used scatological language as a framework for sociopolitical commentary — as his two network television series demonstrated (especially the award-winning Pryor's Place, a Saturday morning kid's show), Pryor could be equally effective when he wasn't working blue. Bruce — who, in my plain-spoken opinion, wasn't the comedic equal of the others, despite his reputation as an innovator — threw out F-bombs as a way of needling the Establishment and giving voice his internal demons.

Carlin, though, liked to play with language. Profanities were his Lincoln logs, his Legos, his alphabet blocks. His "Seven Words You Can't Say on Television" riff (from Class Clown), and its sequel, "Filthy Words" (from Occupation: Foole), were less about the words themselves than the concepts and mores that cause us to judge certain words as socially acceptable while deeming others taboo. A lot of Carlin's comedy was like that — a window into the mind of a man who thought a lot about why the world was the way it was, then found funny ways to talk about it. He was as brilliant an observational humorist as Mark Twain and Will Rogers were in their eras. As a stand-up comedian, he was second only to the nonpareil Pryor.

For me, George lost some of his mojo once he qualified for AARP membership. From the early '80s on, Carlin embraced his newfound persona as the angry old man a mite too fully, and his rancorous bitterness (especially on the topics of religion and politics) often overwhelmed the charming, albeit scathing, bemusement that marked his prime years.

That said, whenever he allowed himself to transcend his curmudgeonly stage character and simply wax poetic about the absurdities of modern life, Carlin was hilarious to the end. I had tears rolling down my cheeks at one point during his final special.

Today, I might shed one or two more, realizing that old George is gone.

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Friday, June 13, 2008

Dance like an Egyptian

As the late, great Jim McKay might have said...

"What in The Wide World of Sports happened to my week?"



All of a sudden, it's another Comic Art Friday, and I haven't posted one doggoned thing since last Friday.

I'm falling down on my blogging responsibilities. It's a crying shame.

Oh, well. I'll do better next week.

Moving on...

Without question, nostalgia plays an essential role in comic art collecting. I know every few, if indeed any, collectors in the hobby who weren't avid comic book readers in their youth. (I know plenty of comic art collectors who are not comic readers today, which says more about the present state of the mainstream comics industry than almost anything else I can name.)

As we've seen on the two most recent Comic Art Fridays, my nostalgia for my comic-geek childhood and my fond recollections of other aspects of popular culture that I experienced during my formative years frequently intersect in my art collection.

Take, for example, my Isis gallery.



I love the classic Saturday morning TV show The Secrets of Isis — produced by Filmation, and starring the ineffably sublime JoAnna Cameron in the title role. The Secrets of Isis is the only television series for which I own all of the episodes on DVD. (And yes, I actually break down and watch a couple of eps whenever the Isis jones overtakes me.)

Isis's September 1975 premiere made her the first superheroine in TV history to headline her own weekly series — Wonder Woman debuted two months later; The Bionic Woman, the following January. You know I'm all about the superheroines. One might even say that I have a superheroine addiction.

Which creates the perfect segue into today's featured artwork.



The pencil art of Mike Vosburg graced seven of the eight issues of the Isis comic book, which DC Comics published during the TV show's tenure (1976-77). Mike has also drawn dozens of other properties during his 35-year career in comics, most notably DC's Starfire (which Mike co-created) and Marvel's She-Hulk and G.I. Joe. These days, in addition to his various illustrating projects, Mike is much sought after as a storyboard artist for motion pictures and television. He storyboarded the first film in the Chronicles of Narnia series, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and is currently at work on the third film, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

I had the opportunity to meet Mike at WonderCon back in February, and found him a most congenial gentleman. We even talked a bit about Isis — how could we not? Some months later, I received an e-mail from a fellow comic art collector who's helping Mike promote his new limited-edition sketchbook — cleverly titled Heroine Addiction (now you get the connection) — and sell the original artwork featured in the book. Mike's friend, knowing my passion for all things Isis, thought I might like to own the Isis drawing Mike created for Heroine Addiction. Again, how could I not?

Mike even personalized the art for me, and included a gratis copy of his sketchbook. Isis and her dancing partners (Mike's a cat fancier, hence Isis's feline companion) are now proudly hanging on my office wall, even as I type.

If you'd like to view more of Mike Vosburg's work, and perhaps score a little Heroine Addiction for yourself, check out his Web site. You can tell Mike your Uncle Swan sent you.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

More blogging next week. Scout's honor.

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Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Swan Tunes In: The Next Food Network Star

Two seasons ago, local restaurant personality Guy Fieri took The Next Food Network Star by storm, winning his own cooking show — the hit Guy's Big Bite — and launching a TV career that soon made him ubiquitous on the cable channel.

Last season, a charisma-challenged field of contestants served up a tainted victor — San Diego soccer mom Amy Finley, who after being voted off returned to the show when another contestant (Joshua "JAG" Garcia) was dismissed for fabricating his culinary and military résumés. Amy's six-episode series, The Gourmet Next Star, boasted all the excitement of drying model cement, and swiftly vanished from the airwaves.

So what does this season's gang of ten tele-chef wannabes look like?
  • Aaron McCargo Jr. is the executive chef at a New Jersey hospital. I've eaten hospital food, and I've seen New Jersey. If either is any indication, I don't hold out much hope for Aaron.

  • Adam Gertler is an aspiring actor and waiter — as though that isn't redundant — who used to own a barbecue joint in Philadelphia. He strikes me as kind of goofy and annoying.

  • If Cory Kahaney's name sounds vaguely familiar, it might be because she's a stand-up comedian who made the finals of Last Comic Standing a few seasons ago. Cory's not laughing now, because she was the first contestant booted off in her latest competitive reality show challenge. Seeya, Cory.

  • Jeffrey Vaden is a caterer who, at 6'5", towers over his fellow contestants. For some reason, he reminds me a little of Geoffrey Holder, the actor from Trinidad who used to do those 7-Up commercials back in the day.

  • Jennifer Cochrane is the executive chef at a pair of restaurants in Rhode Island. Given the size of Rhode Island, those may be the only two restaurants in the entire state. She's working the "suffering single mom" angle way too hard for my taste.

  • Kelsey Nixon lost me the moment she referred to herself in her bio as "Mini Martha Stewart." She's blonde, cheerleader-chirpy, and from Utah, which I believe adds up to another redundancy. She's already had her own cooking show on local television. As far as I'm concerned, that was one Kelsey show too many. The world does not need a mini Martha Stewart. I'm not entirely sure we need the full-sized version.

  • Kevin Roberts, a chef and cookbook author from San Diego, is perhaps the most laid-back contestant in the group. Chalk at least some of that up to his experience as a culinary commentator for a radio station. I find him bland and unremarkable, but his background should help.

  • As far as I'm concerned, restaurateur and former pageant queen Lisa Garza can pack up her attitude and her Louise Brooks hairdo, and boogie on back to Dallas anytime now. She's smug, self-important, and insufferable — all of which helped land her in the bottom two. Don't let the door hit you on the way out, Miss Thing.

  • Nipa Bhatt is one of the more interesting options — her specialty is Indian food, and Food Network tends to be lacking in the ethnic cuisine department. She's smart, focused, and confident to a fault, but she might come off as a mite too serious (even grim) for weekly TV.

  • Youngster Shane Lyons — he's only 20, and already a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America — is a former child actor who costarred on Nickelodeon's All That a few years ago. Now he's a caterer in Colorado Springs. Shane broke down in tears during the first evaluation session with the judges. ("There's no crying in cooking!") He's probably had more face time on camera than any contestant except the now-departed Cory, but he'll have to man up if he wants to stick around.
It's hard to pick a single early favorite after the first episode, but if I had to bet, I'd put my money on a Jennifer/Kelsey final. They both have the kind of telegenic, upbeat (read: gratingly perky) personalities that Food Network favors. Time, as the saying goes, will tell.

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Now go do that voodoo that you do so well

At the risk of alienating SSTOL regular Scott, who was just chiding me about all the talk of death around here...

The great Harvey Korman has passed on.



It would be impossible to discuss Harvey Korman's contributions to comedy without starting with The Carol Burnett Show, where he shone as the leading sketch comic in Burnett's repertory company. Korman paired especially well with Tim Conway — almost every week, a sketch on the Burnett show would devolve into barely restrained hilarity as the two veteran comedians cracked one another up in front of a live audience. Korman won four Emmys — and was nominated for an additional three — for his work on Carol Burnett.

For me, though, Korman will live forever as Hedy Lamarr — "That's HEDLEY!" — okay, Hedley Lamarr, the scheming villain of Mel Brooks's nonpareil Western spoof, Blazing Saddles. Korman steals pretty much every scene in which he appears, breathing joy into his over-the-top portrayal of a conniving government official hell-bent on stealing a tiny frontier hamlet out from under its residents so that he can make a killing building a railroad through the site.

As Lamarr, Korman is at turns pompous, vain, agitated, simpering, serpentine, and pure evil, but he is never not funny, not for even a millisecond of screen time. It's not the kind of acting that wins Academy Award nominations — despite Korman's plea for same during the film's denouement — but I guarantee that no one who's ever seen Blazing Saddles can hear the name "Hedy Lamarr" without hearing Korman's exasperated "That's HEDLEY!" from deep within the cerebral cortex.

Korman delivered numerous other hysterical performances, especially in Brooks-directed films. He was a masochistic psychiatrist in High Anxiety; a slick French politician, the Count de Monet, in History of the World, Part I; an asylum superintendent who becomes a reluctant vampire hunter in Dracula: Dead and Loving It.

Given that Blazing Saddles is my favorite cinematic comedy, and one of my five favorite movies of any genre, it's his role in that film that will keep Harvey Korman fondly etched in my memories.

Rest in peace, Hedy Lamarr.

"That's HEDLEY!"

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Whistle stop

The name Earle Hagen may not ring a bell when first you hear it. But if you were watching television in the 1960s and '70s — or if you're a fan of TV Land or Nick at Nite — you're familiar with his work.

The composer of numerous TV theme songs and scores, Hagen died yesterday at the age of 88.

Hagen's theme music résumé reads like a list of Nielsen ratings all-stars from back in the day: I Spy (for which Hagen won an Emmy), That Girl, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mod Squad, Eight is Enough, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., and most memorably, The Andy Griffith Show, which featured Hagen whistling a happy tune as Andy and Opie head off to the ol' fishin' hole.

In addition to his extensive television work — it's estimated that his music appears in more than 3,000 episodes — Hagen also wrote scores for dozens of motion pictures, including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. He and cowriter Lionel Newman were nominated for an Academy Award in 1961 for scoring another Marilyn Monroe classic, Let's Make Love.

Even if he had never composed a note for the screen, either large or small, Hagen's place in musical history was secured when he wrote (with bandleader Ray Noble) the jazz standard "Harlem Nocturne" in 1939. Practically every jazz musician active in the past seven decades has covered Hagen's soulful, Ellingtonesque riff.

Earle Hagen's passing gets me to thinking...

Whatever happened to TV theme songs?

At one time, you couldn't have a successful TV show without a catchy theme. Sometimes, the theme music was infinitely better than the show it introduced. Everyone remembers Henry Mancini's theme from the '50s detective drama Peter Gunn, which still pops up in movie and TV show soundtracks to this day. Anyone recall the show itself? That's what I thought. (Another example: T.H.E. Cat, an otherwise forgettable mid-'60s show starring Robert Loggia as a reformed — yet conveniently named — cat burglar, had a wicked cool jazz theme by Lalo Schifrin that I can hear reverberating in my skull even now.)

When I was but a wee lad, I used to collect TV themes on my little reel-to-reel tape recorder — you whippersnappers will have to look that one up — and a cheap microphone I would hold in front of the speaker of our Zenith console set. In between songs, I'd throw in introductory patter in the mold of the AM disc jockeys I idolized — Casey Kasem and Wolfman Jack. (Look, I was an only child in a military family that moved every year or two. I learned self-entertainment skills early in life.) Who knew then that TV theme songs would one day go the way of... well... reel-to-reel audio tape?

Of course, there's a reason for the decline in the art of TV themes: It's called money. Those precious 15 or 30 seconds that would otherwise be wasted on a throwaway musical trifle can be sold to the highest-bidding advertiser, instead of offering attention-deficient viewers an opportunity to grab a snack or relieve themselves. When TV shows use themes these days, they're usually established pop hits (the CSI franchise's obsession with classics by The Who, to cite but three), not custom ditties designed to establish the program's unique mood.

Earle Hagen may have died only yesterday, but, sad to tell, the TV theme songs he loved died long before.

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Saturday, May 24, 2008

Say "Good night," Dick

Dick Martin, the goofier half of the '60s comedy team Rowan and Martin, has said his last "Good night, Dick."

For those of you too young to remember the Summer of Love, Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In broke many of television's most hallowed taboos when it debuted on NBC in January 1968.

Laugh-In was the first primetime network series to leap full-bore into the world of cutting-edge political humor and sexual double entendre, and it did it all with a loosey-goosey formlessness that owed more to the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night and psychedelia than any traditional variety or comedy program that preceded it.

At the center of the insanity stood straight man Dan Rowan and his happy-go-lucky foil Dick Martin, standing about looking dapper in their tuxedos, tossing off urbane one-liners while Goldie Hawn gyrated in a bikini.

Those were the days.

After Laugh-In played out the string in the early '70s, Rowan and Martin went their separate ways. Dick Martin showed up frequently as a celebrity panelist on game shows like Hollywood Squares and Match Game — TV programs that capitalized on the new openness in bawdy humor that Laugh-In pioneered.

At the same time, Martin was building a second, less visible but no less creative, career behind the camera as a director. He helmed dozens of episodes of situation comedies, from Newhart to Sledge Hammer! and everything in between.

Early in Laugh-In's run, Rowan and Martin seized their blossoming fame and rushed out a theatrical comedy called The Maltese Bippy (after one of the innumerable catchphrases Laugh-In spawned, "You bet your sweet bippy"). Modeled on the Universal Studios horror-comedies of Abbott and Costello, the film featured Dan and Dick matching half-wits with vampires and werewolves, and chasing busty young women. (Martin eventually caught one — he married former Playboy centerfold Dolly Read.) I remember sitting with friends in the base theater at Iraklion Air Station on the Greek island of Crete one Saturday afternoon, watching the duo cavort.

Fans will recall that at the conclusion of every Laugh-In episode, Rowan (who died of cancer in 1987) would turn to his partner — who, in typical fashion, had usually just spouted some inane commentary — and utter the magic words, "Say 'Good night,' Dick." To which Martin would respond, grinning with daffy glee into the camera, "Good night, Dick."

Good night, Dick.

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Like Grant took Richmond

The Dean of Bay Area newscasters has hung up his TelePrompTer.



Last night, Dennis Richmond — the longtime anchor of KTVU-2's Ten O'Clock News — signed off for the final time. Dennis spent 40 years at KTVU (the Bay Area's FOX affiliate, and a major independent station for decades before FOX), the last 32 of which saw him anchoring the area's lone "early" newscast with gravitas and aplomb.

As news anchors go, Dennis was solidly old-school. He rarely cracked wise, offered political commentary, or indulged in tabloid fluff from the anchor chair. In the immortal words of Jack Webb, Dennis stuck with "just the facts, ma'am."

His female co-anchors — and they were always female, beginning with Barbara Simpson in the late '70s, who gave way to Elaine Corral in the mid-'80s, who in turn stepped aside for Leslie Griffith in the late '90s, before perky Julie Haener snatched the job two years ago — came and went (mostly as they crept toward middle age, because that's how the broadcasting business goes), but Dennis remained constant, every night offering his sober and elegant delivery of the day's critical stories.

I would never hope to switch on the television and hear that World War Three had erupted. But if it had, I'd have wanted Dennis Richmond to be there to break the news, in his rich, reassuring baritone.

Now, when the Big One drops, I'll have to settle for Frank Somerville. Not that there's anything wrong with Frank — he's a fine reporter and anchor in his own right. But no one is Dennis Richmond.

Heck, they already named an East Bay city after the man.

Bon chance, Mr. Richmond. Thanks for all the news, good and bad. May your retirement be long, healthy, and fulfilling.

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Monday, May 12, 2008

Time for your singout, America

Now that David Archuleta's father Jeff has been booted from the American Idol set due to his obsessive stage-motherish antics (not to mention his rearranging of one of the songs his son performed on the show, resulting in hefty royalties payouts by Idol's producers)...



...here's Uncle Swan's Top Five Additional People Who Need to Be Voted Off Idol, and Soon:

5. Randy "Not Michael's Little Brother" Jackson. I love Journey as much as the next '70s holdover, but seriously, it's time for Randy to hit the bricks. Even though "The Dawg" is the only Idol judge with legitimate musical credentials (you're not still clinging to the illusion that Paula actually sang "Straight Up" and "Cold Hearted Snake," are you?), his inane repetitions of the same tired clichés every week wore out their welcome at least three seasons ago. It ain't workin' for me any more, Dawg.

4. Ryan "I'm Too Sexy for My" Seacrest. Two words: Seacrest? Out. Get over yourself, Gel Boy.

3. The instigator of the weekly Ford Motor Company "pimpmercials." Look, I understand economics. I know that Ford blows a ginormous chunk of change every week to have the surviving Idols lip-synch and grimace to some stale pop tune. I realize that those funds are, in large measure, responsible for keeping the show on the air. But if I wanted to watch abysmal musical theater, I'd buy a ticket to a local high school production, or the nearest theme park. I don't need these camp comedies beamed into my living room. Oh, and Ford? Try making some cars you don't have to pimp.

2. Every celebrity mentor who hasn't had a Top Ten pop hit this millennium, or who can recall the Kennedy administration firsthand. Is it any wonder that young viewers are deserting Idol in droves, when the producers' idea of hip, happening musical guests includes Dolly Parton, Neil Diamond, and Andrew Lloyd Webber? How did the show turn into AARP Idol all of a sudden?

1. Paula "Putting the Coca Back in Cola" Abdul. Enough already with the insipid, rambling, pharmaceutically fueled commentary, already. If I have to endure one more outburst of Paula's torturous Amy Winehouse imitation — or another cellophane-sheer denial by Seacrest of what every American with a television set or Internet connection can see and hear with his or her own God-installed sensory apparatus — I'm going to fly to Hollywood and sniff Paula's Coke tumbler myself.

Get to stepping, the lot of you.

And take Little Archie and his dad with you.

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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Bring me the head of Brian Dunkleman

Has this been the most tedious American Idol season in history, or what?



When this year's Top Twelve were announced — what seems like a geological epoch ago — I commented that this field seemed like the least interesting in the show's seven-year history.

Things haven't improved since.

But at least we're down to the final three, and that's something. No more false starts by Brooke White, no more dead-fish stares from Kristy Lee Cook, and as of last night, no more agonizingly soporific performances by Jason "I'm Too Sexy for My Dreadlocks" Castro.

Not that what we're left with is all that much better.

Syesha Mercado is the surprise pick in the remaining trio. I didn't expect Syesha, who's been in the bottom tier more consistently than almost anyone else this season, to survive anywhere close to this late in the contest. For my money, she's the most listenable of the three singers left, and she's not hard to look at, either. But she's never shaken her penchant for selecting ill-fitting material to perform, nor has she developed much of an engaging stage personality. As I sit here typing, I can't recall the title of a single song Syesha has sung. That's not a good sign. She'll probably be the next to depart.

David Archuleta — "Archie," as I like to call him — was everyone's early-season favorite to be anointed American Idol #7. The kid does zip for me personally. He sings pretty well, in a high school musical sort of way, but I can't say much else in his favor. He's awkward, uncomfortable to watch, and indefinably creepy in a manner that makes me fear for his household pets. If there's a market for Archie's recordings, I can't imagine of whom that market would consist. He doesn't have boy-band sex appeal, rock star charisma, or Broadway vocal power. As I said at the beginning, though, in this tepid field, I would still not be surprised if he won.

David Cook is, to my mind, the least of the three evils left. Alt-rocker Cook, who has outlasted the other Cook and one of the two other Davids in the Top Twelve, could best be described as Chris Daughtry-lite. I'm not sure why anyone would want Daughtry-lite when the real Daughtry is alive and well and appears to be doing just fine with his career, but there you go. Cook is the most talented of the Big Three, both in vocal skill and in ability to adapt effectively to a variety of material. Were I among the teeming millions who vote each week — and I can assure you that I am not — Cook would be the one whose digits I'd dial.

Looking at and listening to Syesha and the two Davids, I'm stunned that Idol — still the most popular show on television, despite a ratings slump this season — couldn't come up with a more potent final trio. Where's the Kelly Clarkson in this group? The Fantasia Barrino? The Taylor Hicks, for that matter? (Speaking of Taylor, I believe the last time I saw his face on Idol, it was backstage, on the side of a milk carton.)

In most of the show's previous seasons, even the second- and third-place contestants would have performed dervish-like circles around any of these three. Just imagine such Idol also-rans as Clay Aiken, Kimberley Locke, Katharine McPhee, or the aforementioned Daughtry competing against this motley crew.

This snooze-inducing contest would already be over.

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Thursday, May 01, 2008

Babbling about Brooke

This caught my attention on a slow news May Day...

In an interview scheduled to air next Tuesday, television legend Barbara Walters reveals to Oprah Winfrey that, back in the 1970s, she engaged in a long-running affair with Edward Brooke, who at the time was (a) a Republican U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, (b) married, and (c) African-American.

Brooke hasn't been (a) since 1978. I believe he's now (b) to a different woman than the one to whom he was (b) at the time that he was getting jiggy with the ABC newswoman. So far as I know, he is still (c).

When I first heard about this, my first reaction was probably the same as yours: Barbara Walters?

Senator Brooke: You were one of the 200 or so most powerful men in the United States government. You could probably have shacked up with any woman you chose — notwithstanding the far less enlightened racial climate of 30-odd years ago. And you picked Barbara Walters?

Dude, what were you thinking?

Then again, as a quick survey of the couples strolling your local shopping mall will confirm, there's no accounting for taste.

And here all this time, I just thought Ed Brooke was goofy because he was a Republican.

Setting his questionable preferences in women aside for the moment, Ed Brooke's an interesting guy, from a historical perspective. The first African-American to be popularly elected to the U.S. Senate — and the only black Senator elected for more than a quarter-century after he took office in 1967 — Brooke was a black Republican in an era when pretty much the only black Republicans anyone could name were Pearl Bailey and Ed Brooke.

As one might expect from a Massachusetts Republican, Brooke occupied the liberal wing of the GOP, to the degree that such exists. (In fact, the citizens of Massachusetts haven't elected another Republican to the Senate since Brooke was defeated for a third term by future Democratic Presidential candidate Paul Tsongas.) Brooke often butted heads with fellow elephant Richard Nixon, leading the rejection of a trio of Nixon nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court, including that of racial segregationist (and closeted homosexual, not that either Nixon or Brooke knew at the time) G. Harrold Carswell in 1970. To his credit, Brooke was one of the first Senators to publicly call for Nixon's resignation in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

Earlier in this decade, Brooke was diagnosed with breast cancer, and underwent a double mastectomy. He has since campaigned actively in support of breast cancer awareness, among men in particular. Bush 43 awarded Brooke the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004.

At the time of his defeat in 1978, many political observers blamed Brooke's loss on the nasty and highly publicized divorce he and his then-wife underwent during his second Senatorial term. Now that Barbara Walters has 'fessed up to Oprah, maybe we know what all the fuss at the Brooke house was about.

Although we may never know how Baba Wawa hooked up with a man whose surname she couldn't pronounce.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

CSI: Can't Sleep Intoxicated

CSI star Gary Dourdan got up close and personal with real-life law enforcement this morning in sunny Palm Springs.

Dourdan — recently reported to be exiting his role as crime scene investigator Warrick Brown at the end of the current season — was napping in his car when rousted by the Palm Springs gendarmerie. A search of Dourdan's vehicle turned up heroin, cocaine, Ecstasy, and various prescription drugs.

Way to go out on a high note, Gary. (Heh... "high note.")



I was sorry to hear that Dourdan was departing CSI, even though his character's screen time has been dwindling rapidly over the past few seasons. And I'm certainly sorry to hear about his current troubles, and hope the guy gets himself straightened out. He's a talented actor.

But seriously... he couldn't afford a hotel room? I know Palm Springs is a high-rent district, but Dourdan's gotta be making a chunk of change after eight years on television's top-rated drama.

I remember the first time I noticed Dourdan — costarring alongside James McCaffrey (in between stints on that classic '90s Knight Rider rip-off, Viper) in a short-lived series called Swift Justice. McCaffrey played Mac Swift, your stereotypical ex-cop, ex-Navy Seal hardcase turned private eye, while Dourdan tagged along as Mac's stereotypical streetwise police detective associate, Randall Patterson. It sounds exactly like a few dozen other shows you've seen before, but Swift Justice was a reasonably entertaining example of this well-traveled genre. McCaffrey and Dourdan shared a cool, intense Crockett-and-Tubbs sort of chemistry that made the show's handful of episodes worth watching.

Another smattering of Gary Dourdan trivia: Dourdan and his CSI costar Marg Helgenberger previously paired up in an unsold series pilot entitled Keys. The 1994 TV movie (it still turns up on cable now and again) was produced and directed by John Sacret Young, for whom Helgenberger had worked in her breakout television role, in the Vietnam drama China Beach.

Not to be confused with china white, Mr. Dourdan.

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

My stone gas tank runs dry

The final Train has left the station.

The 22nd Annual Soul Train Music Awards, scheduled for later this year, have been canceled due to overwhelming ennui on the part of both the public and the potential honorees.

Which should come as no surprise — Soul Train, that venerable television dance party, itself vanished from the airwaves two years ago.

Back in the day, Soul Train was, in its own hyberbolic words, "the hippest trip on television." It was a Saturday institution — impossibly limber dancers shaking what their mamas gave 'em to the latest R&B hits.

But what seemed ineffably cool in the swinging '70s had pretty much worn out its trendiness by the early '90s, even though the program chugged along on fumes for another decade or so. Train's creator and longtime host, Don Cornelius, bailed out a few years back, rendering the enterprise almost completely pointless.

In its time, though, Soul Train delivered a weekly dose of unstudied funkiness to TV sets across America. Everyone who was anyone in rhythm and blues — and its temporal offshoots soul, disco, and hip-hop — appeared on the Soul Train stage to lip-synch their latest releases. And was there a cool kid anywhere who didn't secretly long to take just one booty-swiveling boogie down the Soul Train line? Come on — you know you did.

Those days, alas, are forever gone.

Just the other day, as I was loading music onto my new mp3 player, I dug out my copy of Soul Train Hall of Fame, a three-CD box set released in 1994, encompassing 59 legendary R&B cuts made popular during the first 20 years of Soul Train's run.



A few of the track selections are questionable: Why, for example, was the Commodores' sappy ballad "Three Times a Lady" chosen, instead of the funk classic "Brick House"? Why is Prince's early career represented by the fun but lightweight "I Wanna Be Your Lover," instead of, say, any of the singles from the Purple One's most influential album, 1999? In the main, however, the collection provides a vivid, mostly danceable snapshot of the music that Soul Train pioneered.

From this abundance of musical treasures, the following are the ten that most make me want to get up off'a that thang.

1. "Cold Sweat" — James Brown. The Hardest Working Man in Show Business gets busy.

2. "Tear the Roof Off the Sucker (Give Up the Funk)" — Parliament. Could we get George Clinton to run for President, instead of the other one?

3. "Jungle Love" — Morris Day and the Time. In a word: O-E-O-E-O.

4. "Bad Girls" — Donna Summer. Say what you will about the Queen of Disco, but she could rock a groove like nobody's business.

5. "(Every Time I Turn Around) Back In Love Again" — L.T.D. One of the hottest jams ever recorded by a band named after a Ford sedan.

6. "I'm Every Woman" — Chaka Khan. Maybe not every woman, but woman enough.

7. "What's Love Got To Do With It?" — Tina Turner. Come on, Ike, answer that question.

8. "Word Up" — Cameo. Try to stand still when this one comes on. I dare you.

9. "O.P.P." — Naughty By Nature. Yeah, you know me.

10. "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine" — Lou Rawls. Forget side one of Led Zeppelin 4, guys. This is the track you put on when you want to impress the ladies.

Somewhere out there, Don "No Soul" Simmons is smiling.

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Sunday, April 06, 2008

Go down, Moses

Now that the man has shuffled off this mortal coil, I can admit this:

I'm a huge Charlton Heston fan.



Not the rhetoric-spewing, rifle-waving reactionary Heston of his later years in public life. And not even so much the more rational, compassionate Heston of earlier times, who marched alongside Dr. King and was an ardent, vocal supporter of civil rights long before it was socially acceptable. Although I did kind of admire that guy.

No, I mean the Heston of all of those classic Hollywood films. The man who stepped in front of a camera with those chiseled features, that piercing gaze, and that booming baritone, and wrestled the silver screen to the ground.

I loved that Charlton Heston.

The man had such intense, compelling presence that he, with his blond-haired, blue-eyed self, could play an endless string of Hebrews (Moses in The Ten Commandments; Judah Ben-Hur in Ben-Hur; John the Baptist in The Grestest Story Ever Told), Latins (Mexican narco agent Mike Vargas in Touch of Evil; Spanish conqueror Rodrigo Diaz in El Cid), and Italians (Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy; Marc Antony in both the 1970 edition of Julius Caesar and the Heston-directed Antony and Cleopatra in 1972), and make you believe in them.

Heston's charisma was so palpable that he could remain concrete and genuine in the midst of the most embarrassingly hackneyed disaster film (Skyjacked, Airport '75, Earthquake, the submarine-sinking Gray Lady Down) or kitschy science fiction knock-off (The Omega Man — based on the same source material as the recent Will Smith epic, I Am Legend — or the insanely off-kilter consumerism-as-cannibalism future shocker, Soylent Green), and made you believe in those, too.

I mean, the man starred in an Aaron Spelling-produced soap opera so cheesy that it was actually named after cheese — the mid-'80s Dynasty spin-off, The Colbys — and he was even imposing and awe-inspiring in that. If you can shine in an Aaron Spelling production, you've got serious chops, my friend.

Of course, my favorite Heston turn was his role as time-warped astronaut George Taylor in the first two films in what eventually became the Planet of the Apes franchise. If Heston had never done anything in his cinematic career other than break into bitter tears before the ruined shell of the Statue of Liberty — one of the most iconic scenes in the history of the movies — or blow up the entire world with his bloody hand on the detonator of a doomsday bomb, his place in popular culture would be forever sealed. But of course, he did those things, plus all of the aforementioned as well.

What a monumental career.

It would be a shame if all that people remembered about Chuck Heston was the ultra-conservative political animal he became late in life. (Unless you're a rebel-yelling, monster-truck-driving, pistol-packing gun nut yourself — in which case, I guess that will be what you remember. And to that, you're entitled. Different strokes for different folks, as Sly Stone and Gary Coleman used to say.) The man left behind a treasure trove of unforgettable screen performances, to be savored for generations. Keep your paws off my DVDs, you d--n dirty ape! (Sorry. Couldn't resist.)

Sadly, I never had the opportunity to tell Mr. Heston how much I enjoyed his cinematic oeuvre. I did, however, sit next to his daughter Holly during a course in American Political Humor at Pepperdine University one semester. (Nice girl. I lent her a ballpoint pen once. She returned it. I didn't use it again for at least a week afterward.)

Mr. Heston was 84, and had suffered from Alzheimer's disease for the past several years. I share the sorrow of his family, his friends, and his well-earned legion of fans.

(Pssst... Soylent Green is people. Pass it on.)

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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

I watched the news today, oh boy

Television news continues to spiral down the toilet.

Yesterday, CBS initiated a cost-cutting move by firing news reporters, producers, and editors at its owned-and-operated stations nationwide. At KPIX-5 in San Francisco, the cuts involved some of the Bay Area's most honored and most respected broadcast journalists: Emmy-winning reporters Bill Schechner, Manuel Ramos, John Lobertini, and Tony Russomanno, and veteran anchor Barbara Rodgers.

All five of these newspeople built impressive careers. Schechner has worked at several Bay Area stations since arriving here in 1972; he also enjoyed national prominence for several years in the 1980s as Linda Ellerbee's coanchor on NBC News Overnight, and as a correspondent and feature reporter for NBC Nightly News. Ramos and Rodgers have each been reporting local stories at KPIX for 28 years.

Within the broadcast industry, the complaint often raised today is that people — particularly tech-savvy younger people — no longer turn to TV for news, thus making news staffs expendable. What the bean-counters fail to comprehend is that TV news, especially in local markets, has become so fluff-filled and tabloid-oriented that it's ceased to be a credible source for journalism. A couple of years ago, our in-town station, Santa Rosa's KFTY, turned its news operation entirely over to amateurs from the community. The experiment devolved into a national joke.

KPIX used to respresent a bastion of solid, dependable journalism against the piffle floated by the Bay Area's NBC and ABC affiliates. I'm sad to see that philosophy dying an agonizing death at the hands of accountants and media consultants.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

They've killed Kinch!

Ivan Dixon, the talented actor-director best known to teleholics of a certain age as Sgt. James "Kinch" Kinchloe, the technical wizard POW on Hogan's Heroes, has died at age 76.



Dixon's Hollywood career began in the 1950s, when he served as Sidney Poitier's double and stand-in on such films as The Defiant Ones, and later as Poitier's costar in Porgy and Bess and A Raisin in the Sun. He became one of the first black actors to appear in a regular, nonstereotypical role on an American TV series when he was cast in Hogan's Heroes in 1965.

Dixon mostly set acting aside after leaving Hogan's at the end of the show's fifth season. (It remains one of TV's enduring mysteries that Hogan's Heroes stayed on the air for six years.) His two notable roles in post-Stalag 13 life were as Lonnie, the tough-yet-compassionate ex-con straw boss in the classic '70s film comedy Car Wash ("I got to have more money, Mr. B.!"), and as courageous Dr. Alan Drummond, a leader of the resistance movement in the Cold War drama Amerika.

Instead, Dixon refocused his career behind the camera, becoming one of TV's busiest directors throughout the '70s and '80s. He helmed the canvas chair for dozens of episodes of series television, most frequently on The Rockford Files (nine episodes) and Magnum P.I. (13 episodes), but also on shows as diverse as The Waltons, The Greatest American Hero, and Quantum Leap.

After retiring from directing, Dixon owned a radio station in Hawaii for a number of years. (I guess all those years as Colonel Hogan's communications guy finally paid off.)

His career honors included one Emmy nomination (Best Lead Actor in a Drama for the 1967 CBS Playhouse presentation The Final War of Olly Winter), four NAACP Image Awards, the National Black Theatre Award, and the Black American Cinema Society's Paul Robeson Pioneer Award.

As résumés go, that's a pretty darned good one.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

What's Up With That? #59: Mary Ann, meet Mary Jane

Now, sit right back and you'll hear a tale
A tale of a fateful ride;
That ended with a Dawn Wells bust --
Her car had weed inside.


Who would have suspected that sweet, innocent, fresh-faced Mary Ann Summers was a midnight toker?



Gilligan's Island star Wells, today a sprightly 69-year-old, was sentenced to six months probation this week following an arrest in Idaho last October, after a deputy sheriff observed Wells driving erratically.

Upon pulling Wells over, the officer detected the unmistakable aroma of combusting cannabis wafting from the vehicle. A subsequent search turned up four partially consumed doobies, and two cases commonly used for storing marijuana. Wells also failed a field sobriety test.



In addition to the probationary stint, the television legend was slapped with a five-day jail sentence and a $400 fine. (That's the inflationary equivalent of a ticket on a three-hour Hawaiian cruise in 1965.)

Wells reportedly told the arresting officer that the marijuana had been left in her car by three anonymous hitchhikers she had picked up earlier in the evening. Following sentencing, Wells's attorney changed the story, saying that a friend of Wells had borrowed her car on the day in question, and absent-mindedly left his stoner supplies behind. (Memo to Mary Ann: The old "it's my car, but it's not my stuff" gambit played out ages ago. Ask Lindsay Lohan.)

Gilligan fans will recall that Wells's late costar Bob Denver was no stranger to the allure of tetrahydrocannabinol. Denver was busted in 1998 after a package containing marijuana was delivered to his home. At the time, Denver claimed that the package had been sent by his old friend Dawn Wells. Given recent events, that story takes on a fresh new light of relevance.

By the way...

...in the age-old "Ginger or Mary Ann?" debate, does anyone ever pick Ginger?

Perhaps now we know why Mary Ann was so popular.



At least, one of the reasons why.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Swan Tunes In: Your Idol Top Twelve, America



Yeah, yeah, I know... I've usually weighed in on the season's American Idol contestants long before we get down to the Deadly Dozen.

But I've gotta be honest here.

As much as Seacrest and the Gang of Three keep pounding us every week with the proposition that this year's cast is "the most talented ever," I'm just not seeing it. Oh, there's some talent in the bunch, as we'll discuss in a moment, but seriously, this is the most charisma-challenged collection of wannabe Idols since... well... last season, when a freaky kid who couldn't sing a lick ran far deeper into the competition than he ever should have, simply because he was mildly interesting amid a tepid field.

This season, we don't even have Sanjaya to kick around any more.

In Idol's best cycles, it's had drama. Sometimes, that drama derived from a clash of similar styles — as in Season Three, when a trio of massive-voiced R&B divas (LaToya London, eventual winner Fantasia Barrino, and 2007 Academy Award honoree Jennifer Hudson) vied for the crown. At other times, the drama surrounded a coterie of equally likable contestants with disparate, but roughly equal, talents — the triumvirate of Kimberley Locke, Clay Aiken, and ultimate victor Ruben Studdard in Season Two; the four-headed popularity contest between Chris Daughtry, Elliott Yamin, Katharine McPhee, and winner Taylor Hicks in Season Five.

Alas, no drama tonight.

So far this season, it's tough to build much enthusiasm about any of the hopefuls, each of whom is bland and vanilla in her or his own bland, vanilla way. I can't imagine wanting to download a single, much less an entire album's worth of material, by any performer in the Class of '08.

But since we here at SSTOL never permit overwhelming ennui to stand in the way of blogging, we press ahead. Wiping the sleep gunk from our crusty eyelids, let's review the Top Twelve for Idol Season Seven. We'll take 'em in — oh, what the heck — reverse alphabetical order, so as not to impose upon the (yawn) suspense.

Brooke White. As exciting as her name. A perky blonde Mormon kid from Arizona — with all the thrill potential that impliezzzzz... — Brooke is one of the contestants leveraging the new-for-'08 rule permitting performers to play their own instruments onstage. We've seen her tickle the ivories during Hollywood Week, and strum her way through a downbeat cover of Pat Benatar's "Love is a Battlefield" on guitar. What we haven't seen is even a modicum of personality. Brooke can sing just fine, but man, is she boring. Her skills and the Rocky Mountain LDS voting block should keep her in contention for the top five.

Carly Smithson. Irish-born chanteuse Carly is one of several "ringers" in this year's field — contestants who've previously signed recording contracts, and, in Carly's case, recorded at least one major-label album (2001's MCA Records release Ultimate High, recorded under her maiden name Carly Hennessey). (I know — this seems antithetical to Idol's entire "discovering unknown talent" concept. But I just report the facts.) Carly, in fact, passed the Idol audition phase back in Season Five, but was unable to continue in the competition due to visa problems. Not surprisingly, Carly is the most polished performer of the finalists. She'll steamroll her way at least into the top three.

Amanda Overmyer. Perhaps the only real surprise in the Top Twelve, Amanda's a raspy-voiced rocker chick — think Janis Joplin without the heart or nuance, and with a hideous faux-Goth makeover. She really can't sing very well — her rendition of one of my favorite '70s classics, Kansas's "Carry On, Wayward Son," made my eardrums scream for mercy — and her stony-faced demeanor is off-putting, to say the least. Amanda found her niche last week, however, with an acceptable cover of Joan Jett's "I Hate Myself for Loving You." I'll be shocked if she lasts long enough to make the Idol summer tour, which traditionally features the top ten finalists.

Syesha Mercado.
In most seasons, Idol serves up a plethora of female hopefuls who appear to believe they're the next Whitney Houston. This year, there's only one diva: Syesha (it's pronounced Cy-EE-sha). She's got a decent enough voice, but has a penchant for abominable song selection — she growled a hideous version of "Tobacco Road" a couple of weeks back, and delivered an oddly gender-flipped rearrangement of Billy Paul's "Me and Mrs. Jones." Purely from an aesthetic perspective, I hope Syesha sticks around a while — she's the most attractive of the female contestants, in a year when attractiveness is in short supply — but she'll have to pick more effective material. She's a mid-round elimination at best.

Ramiele Malubay. This year's edition of Season Three's Jasmine Trias, Ramiele is a petite Asian-American girl who'll pick up a lot of what I call the "stuffed animal" vote — she's the cutest and cuddliest member of the cast, and ratchets up her adorability factor by bawling uncontrollably whenever a fellow contestant is eliminated. In her defense, however, Ramiele can also sing, with a startlingly powerful voice encased in so diminutive a package. I wouldn't be at all shocked to see her in the top half of the draw.

Michael Johns. Like Carly, Michael's another of the ringers — he was twice signed to Madonna's record label, albeit without actually releasing an album — and also like Carly, a candidate to be American Idol's first non-American-born Idol (he's an Aussie from Perth, and even bears some slight resemblance to his late homeboy, Heath Ledger). He is, if I'm not mistaken, the oldest-ever Idol finalist at age 29, and he could easily pass for a decade older. He's a talent, but after the Taylor Hicks fiasco of two seasons ago, I suspect that Idol's producers will undermine his chances at every turn. Middle of the pack, most likely.

David Hernandez. One of three Davids in the Top Twelve, David H. is this year's sex-scandal Idol. Prior to his moment in the television spotlight, he worked as a stripper and lap-dance provider at a gay bar in Phoenix — an establishment bearing the none-too-subtle moniker "Dick's Cabaret." Unlike the fabled Frenchie Davis of Season Two, who was booted from the show when news came to light that she had posed nude for a pornographic Web site, David H. has been given a free pass by Idol's producers. He won't last more than a couple of weeks, though — he's not much of a singer, and — surprisingly, given his background — he's not a very captivating performer, either.

Chikezie Eze. The only male soul singer in this season's cast, Chikezie (who, in the manner of Fantasia and Mandisa before him, appears to have deep-sixed his surname somewhere on the way to the finals) seems like a nice fellow. Unfortunately, that affability is all that he has going for him here. His vocal style approximates that of the late Luther Vandross in the later years of that legend's life, but Chikezie doesn't have Luther's ability or charisma. He'll be a candidate for the exit every week until he's gone, which will probably be soon.

Kristy Lee Cook. Yet another ringer: Kristy was signed by BMI Records in 2001. No less a celebrity than the now-notorious Britney Spears showed up for a cameo in Kristy's first music video — a video that earned the country singer from Oregon the nickname "KKKristy" in online forums, as she performs a portion of her number standing in front of a Confederate flag. The second coming of Kellie Pickler — only with even less talent, if you can imagine that's possible — Ms. Cook will likely draw some niche votes from country fans, but not enough to propel her higher than eighth or ninth.

David Cook. The field's most identity-challenged contestant, in that he shares his surname with one of his competitors and his given name with two others. I'll confess that I didn't think much of David C. the first couple of weeks of competition — to me, he sounds pretty much like a dozen other grunge rockers I could name, and a zillion more no one could name — but he impressed me last week with an arrestingly good alt-rock remake of Lionel Richie's "Hello." (I would not have thought it possible to do a listenable alt-rock cover of a Lionel Richie song, but I learn new things all the time.) If David C. can keep pulling that kind of rabbit out of his musical hat, he'll stick around for a few weeks.

Jason Castro. Dreadlocked Jason vaulted from obscurity last week with a gorgeous, sensitive rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," the most familiar cover of which was recorded by Jeff Buckley (literally hundreds of other singers have recorded the song also). As with David Cook before him, Jason needs this level of artistry to break loose every week, because before this, I was sneaking a bathroom break every time he stepped on stage.

David Archuleta. Young David A. is problematic — he's an unquestionably talented kid (he also competed, and won, on the revival of Star Search a few years back) who wouldn't appear to have much, if indeed any, potential as a popular recording artist. His is the sort of musical performance ability that would have, in an earlier generation, made him an ideal candidate for The Mickey Mouse Club alongside Britney, Justin, and the rest. But unless he's hiding some serious Timberlake in his hip pocket, he'll spend his career singing in cruise ship lounges and theme parks. (Not that that's a bad thing.) I would not be surprised if David A. survived until the final round. I would not even be shocked if he won. I just can't imagine him selling many CDs.

So there you have it, America. Vote early, and vote often. We'll check back in a few weeks to see who's still standing.

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Monday, February 25, 2008

No viewers for old Oscar

I would like to tell you how enthusiastically I enjoyed last night's telecast of the 80th Academy Awards.

I would also like to tell you how closely I resemble Denzel Washington, and how my fiscal holdings almost exactly mirror those of Warren Buffett.

All of the above would be equally true.

Oscar really has turned into a snoozefest — tepid, tedious, and annoyingly time-wasting. You'd think that after 80 years, the Academy would have cooked up a formula that worked. But they haven't.

To be fair, one of the key problems with this year's show was out of the Academy's hands, as well as those of the producers of the Oscarcast. There was little, if any, suspense inherent in any of the major awards, largely because many of the films nominated weren't popular blockbusters with a built-in rooting interest, and quite a few of the actors up for the big prizes weren't household names in any households other than their own. I'll be honest, I had to hit Wikipedia and IMDB more than once to find out what other film projects a nominee had done. Embarrassing admission for a pop culture maniac such as myself, but we're all about the honesty here at SSTOL.

Jon Stewart's return as host didn't help much. In his own realm on The Daily Show, Stewart's a sharp, funny guy. But in his two stints as Oscar MC, he's seemed off his "A" game. As Chris Rock discovered a few years back, it's tough to strike that delicate balance between edgy and off-putting. Stewart appears to be taking the path of least resistance here, but that isn't really what people who enjoy his incisive brand of topical humor want to see or hear. He's certainly better than the terminally laid-back Steve Martin or the uncomfortably frenetic Ellen Degeneres, but not an awful lot better.

As I've noted in past years, I still believe that the best hosting Oscar has had in recent seasons was served up by Whoopi Goldberg in her four outings. Whoopi — who, to be frank, I prefer in small doses — exhibits all the right tools for award night success: a quick wit; a brilliant sense of timing; a willingness to push the envelope but sense enough not to push it too far; and best of all, her own personal Oscar cred as a two-time nominee and winner of one gold statue (Best Supporting Actress, 1990, Ghost). It's clear, though, that Whoopi has somehow landed on the Academy's blacklist (no pun intended) — when clips of former Oscarcast hosts appeared on last night's show, the Whoopster was mysteriously absent.

Anyway, I'd continue talking about the broadcast, but just thinking about it is hitting me like a double dose of Ambien. So let's just hope Little Gold Guy finds a little more action next year.

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

I'm Karen for you, Valentine

Happy Valentine's Day to everyone in SSTOL-land! May you live in romantic times.

All this hearts-and-flowers talk has me wondering, though...

Whatever happened to local girl Karen Valentine?



Born and raised just around the corner from here in Sebastopol — then nationally renowned for its apple orchards (now mostly gone, as progress would have it), and later as the one-time residence of cartoonist Charles Schulz — Karen Valentine leaped into TV prominence in 1969 on the seminal academic drama Room 222. As perky, neurotic student teacher (and eventually, full-fledged faculty member) Alice Johnson, Karen quickly became one of 222's focal points.

For those of you too callow to recall, Room 222 broke significant broadcast ground back in the day. The show, set in an inner-city Los Angeles high school, boasted one of network television's first thoroughly integrated casts, headlined by African American actors Lloyd Haynes and Denise Nicholas (who was briefly married to soul singer Bill Withers). The plotlines often dealt with topical issues, such as race relations and the Vietnam War.

But let's face it: It was Karen Valentine we tuned in to see.

After 222 ended in 1974, Karen headlined a short-lived sitcom entitled — not surprisingly — Karen. She also made frequent appearances throughout the '70s as a celebrity panelist on the popular game show Hollywood Squares, before launching a decade-long career as the heroine in a skein of maudlin made-for-TV movies.

Although her IMDB listing reflects sporadic acting credits in recent years, I don't believe I've actually seen Karen in anything in 15 years or more. Unlike the remarkably similar Sally Field, who pushed beyond her youthful roles in Gidget and The Flying Nun to become a respected, Oscar-winning film actress, Karen never quite made the on-camera jump from bubbly, fresh-faced girl to mature, sophisticated adult woman.

Too bad, really.

Wherever you are, Miss Johnson, I hope you're enjoying your Valentine's Day.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The missing Linc

It's Lincoln's Birthday today!

Oh, what a joyous occasion!

Lincoln has always been a hero of mine. He hung tough in the face of adversity and violent opposition. He stood determined in his resolve to battle injustice and hatred. Charismatic, yet possessed with a dignified cool. A champion defender of the disenfranchised, and a staunch advocate for the rights of black Americans.

Plus, his monster Afro and aviator shades were wicked cool.

What?

Oh, you meant this Lincoln...



...not this Lincoln.



Never mind, then. Carry on.

Solid!

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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

A rolling stone gathers no Morse

The news got a trifle lost amid all the political claptrap, but it's my sad duty to report that actor Barry Morse has passed away.

If you're of a certain age, you will recall Morse as the indomitable Lt. Philip Gerard in the classic 1960s TV drama The Fugitive. (Morse's character was the model for the Tommy Lee Jones role in the Fugitive theatrical film and its sequel, U.S. Marshals.)

For four tension-filled seasons, Gerard pursued the innocent yet accused Dr. Richard Kimble — played by one of television's most memorable stars, David Janssen — before gunning down the one-armed murderer of Kimble's wife in the final episode. That shocking conclusion stood for years as TV's most-viewed hour, until those infernal Super Bowls began catching up.

Slightly more youthful teleholics remember that in the mid-'70s, Morse costarred alongside Mission: Impossible veterans Martin Landau and Barbara Bain in the first season of Space: 1999. It was never clear to me whether Morse actually left the sci-fi series after the first year, or perhaps simply dozed off in his dressing room while reading the notoriously soporific show's next script and no one bothered to awaken him.

If you happen to encounter Mr. Morse in the near future, however, I don't believe he's sleeping.

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Sunday, February 03, 2008

The Swan Tunes In: Super Bowl XLII commercials

At least the game was exciting.

Since the last vestiges of the 49ers dynasty are more than a decade in the rear-view mirror, in recent years I've mostly watched the Super Bowl to check out the commercials.

It's a good thing that Super Bowl Extra-Large Plus Two turned out to be a tightly contested, down-to-the-wire funfest, because this year's Super Bowl ads? Weaker than that Vitamin Water that Shaq the jockey was hawking.

These were the most memorable of a largely forgettable collection:
  • Bud Light: Man Breathes Fire. Any commercial that involves singeing a cat scores in my book. You know how I feel about cats.

  • Tide To Go: Job Interview. For my money, this one did everything an ad is supposed to do: it caught my attention; it stuck in my memory; and most important of all, it made me want to buy the product.

  • Budweiser: Rocky the Clydesdale. Yes, it was cute and hokey, but I loved the horse who finally made the Budweiser coach-pulling team after umpteen attempts, with a little help from his friend the Dalmatian.

  • Planters Nuts: A Dab of Cashew Will Do Ya. A homely woman rocks the pheromone boost she gets from rubbing cashews into her pulse points. This one was all kinds of creepy and weird, but it worked for me.

  • Coca-Cola: Macy's Parade. Three giant balloons get into a fight over a bottle of Coke. Charlie Brown wins. I'm not sure it made me want to slug down a Coke, but it was funny and unique. Plus, it's Charlie Brown, man. Charlie Brown rules.

  • SoBe Life Water: Thriller. Naomi Campbell zombie-dancing with animated lizards to the King of Pop's venerable classic. At least Michael didn't put in an appearance.

  • T-Mobile: Charles Barkley Out-Parties Dwyane Wade. The Round Mound of Rebound still has the magic. Comedy gold.
There were, of course, far more spots that I didn't find amusing or compelling:Wake me up in time for the next Super Bowl. Or better yet, for the Iron Man movie.

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Monday, January 28, 2008

Yes, I SAG, and I'm not ashamed

It would have been criminal for pop culture vultures not to watch the Screen Actors Guild Awards last night, if only because it may represent our only taste of Hollywood glitz all spring.

The SAGs received a special dispensation from the striking Writers Guild of America, eliminating picketing that would have prevented WGA-sympathetic actors (pretty much everyone in SAG) from attending, and allowing WGA members to write for the awards show without reprisal. The lack of such a waiver resulted in the cancellation of the Golden Globe ceremony earlier this month, and continues to threaten the Academy Awards.

As entertainment, the SAG Awards (called "Actors," despite the potential for ribald humor were they to be nicknamed "Saggies") usually fall somewhere between the Golden Globes and the Oscars. The SAGs lack the liquor-lubricated club atmosphere of the Globes, while being slightly less self-important and pompous than the Academy Awards. Because all of the SAG recipients are actors — no writing, directing, or technical awards here — most of the presenters and awardees are familiar faces, thus lessening the tedium somewhat. (I'm glad all of the anonymous behind-the-scenes folks get their just due at Oscar time, but I don't especially care to watch them get it.)

The SAG show always begins with several stars facing the camera and delivering brief and (supposedly) humorous summations of their careers, ending with the tagline, "I'm [STATE YOUR NAME], and I'm an actor." Some of the better riffs on this theme came this year from Sally Field ("I was in my first play when I was 12..."), Kyle MacLachlan ("I've ridden giant sandworms and tracked down Laura Palmer's killer..."), and the former Mrs. John Stamos ("I spent three films painted blue... I'm Rebecca Romijn, and I'm a model turned actor"). One of these years, I'd love to see them get a more refreshingly honest admission: "I'm Ben Affleck, and I'm stealing money pretending to be an actor."

None of the results were surprises. The cast of The Sopranos, taking their final collective bow, swept most of the TV honors. Oscar favorites Daniel Day-Lewis, Julie Christie, Javier Bardem, and Ruby Dee snagged the major film nods.

The one puzzle for me was the awarding of the Lifetime Achievement Award to Charles Durning. I mean, yes, the man has been around forever, and he's appeared in roughly half a million films and TV shows over his lengthy career. But was Durning really the most worthy possible recipient? Anyone at SAG ever heard of Nicholson, Streep, DeNiro, or Pacino? Then again, considering Durning's obviously frail condition last evening, maybe those other folks aren't close enough to death's door yet.

Speaking of death, it was nice to see that the show's producers managed to shoehorn the recently departed Heath Ledger into the annual "Everyone Who Died Since Last Year's Show" tribute montage. The Academy Awards has occasionally drawn criticism when a celebrity has passed away within a few days of the program, and the Oscar producers haven't altered the already completed memoriam, forcing the fans of the newly departed to wait an entire year to see their favorite memorialized.

For a year in which awards shows may be slim pickings, I was taken aback to see that more of the stars didn't bust out their most exciting evening wear for the SAGs. Instead, this proved to be a fairly conservative and sedate year for red carpet fashions. Viggo Mortensen outflashed most of the men in his black-with-red-pinstripes tuxedo, which, combined with his scruffy beard, gave him the air of a dissolute English pimp:



On the distaff side, Sandra Oh's strapless parachute affair, with its humongous magenta bow across the chest, probably drew the most quizzical stares:



Now let's see whether the WGA strike will resolve in time for the 80th Oscar show.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Dan's the Jeopardy! man

Congratulations to Dan Pawson, whose streak as reigning Jeopardy! champion ended tonight after nine victories.

Dan's run marks the third-longest winning skein in non-tournament Jeopardy! play, after the phenomenal Ken Jennings (74 wins) and David Madden (19 wins). (Long-time viewers will recall that until a few seasons ago, returning champions — including yours truly — were retired after their fifth victories.)

Dan's prize total of $171,601 will come in extremely handy, given that he and his wife are expecting a new baby, quite literally any day now.

Way to go, Dan!

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Monday, January 07, 2008

The Swan Tunes In: American Gladiators

Last night, I caught the much-anticipated (around my desk, at least) premiere of NBC's newly revived American Gladiators.



For those of you who slept through the 1990s, the original American Gladiators (1989-1996) was a syndicated competition-reality series in which average men and women (albeit average men and women in better-than-average physical condition) pitted themselves in a variety of events against a team of colorfully nicknamed "gladiators." The male and female contestants who racked up the most points each week moved on to the next round of competition later in the season. Ultimately, the show crowned victorious champions in the final episode each season.

The 2008 version of American Gladiators — one of a spate of "unscripted" shows spawned by the Writers Guild of America strike — restores most of the elements that made the original a hit: contestants with interesting backstories (last night's competitors included a rehabilitative physician, a professional skateboarder, a New York City firefighter, and a female Iraq War veteran), events that make for rousing viewing (several of which are upgrades of staples from the old series), and of course, an all-new crew of Gladiators.

As in the previous version of the show, the Gladiators bear catchy one-word monikers (i.e., Crush, Justice, Venom). At least a couple of the names are nostalgic throwbacks (I recall a Siren and a Titan from the old days — in fact, the original Siren was played by a deaf athlete named Shelley Beattie), even though all of the personnel are new. In typical 21st-century fashion, the 2008 Gladiators tend to be bigger (all of the male Gladiators are 6'2" or taller, and I'm thinking that several members of the team — both men and women — would be hard-pressed to pass a test for anabolic steroids) and louder (Wolf and Toa, in particular, will soon wear out the welcome of their lycanthropic howls and Maori war chants, respectively) than their predecessors.

And there are at least a couple of semi-familiar faces in the bunch: Mike O'Hearn, a championship bodybuilder (a four-time Mr. Universe) and well-known male model (you'll see his muscular likeness on the covers of dozens of romance novels), plays Titan; Gina Carano, a martial artist (and daughter of former NFL quarterback Glenn Carano) who appeared as one of the trainers on Oxygen's women-boxing show Fight Girls, plays Crush.

I was pleased to see that the gameplay is as exciting as ever. Most of the old games have been given a fresh twist (Joust, in which a contestant and Gladiator attempt to knock one another off tiny pedestals with pugil sticks, is now played above a pool of water), and the new games are intriguing. I especially like Earthquake, in which the competitor and Gladiator grapple on a swinging Plexiglas platform high above the arena floor (and yet another pool of water). The end game, a torturous obstacle course called the Eliminator, has been ratcheted up to an extreme level that leaves the contestants nearly comatose from exhaustion by the time they crash through the foam-brick wall that marks the finish line.

My main problem with the revival is that the episodes feel padded, mostly with useless yammering by commentators Hulk Hogan and Laila Ali. (What's the matter, NBC? Did you lose Mike Adamle's phone number since the last Olympics?) I'm certain that the original series managed to cram more events into each show than the four we're getting here. Memo to NBC: Less yak, more smack.

The new show also seems to be trying too hard to make "personalities" out of both the competitors and the Gladiators — especially the aforementioned Wolf and Toa, and the Valkyrie-themed female Gladiator who's saddled with the amusing nickname Hellga. Back in the day, fan favorites — male Gladiators Gemini (former NFL player Michael Horton), Laser (stuntman Jim Starr, who gained additional notoriety when it was revealed that he was married to porn star Candie Evans) and Nitro (who eventually moved into the AG commentator's chair under his real name, Dan Clark), and female Gladiators Zap (bodybuilder Raye Hollitt, who enjoyed a modest mainstream acting career) and Lace (actress Marisa Paré, who parlayed her Gladiator fame into a Playboy pictorial) — just naturally evolved as the seasons progressed.

Is American Gladiators high art? Of course not. Is it schlock TV? Well, sure. Is it a half-step removed from professional wrestling? In style and tone, perhaps, although the competition is real (as are the contestants) and the outcomes are not — so far as I'm aware — scripted.

But is it entertaining enough to keep me tuning in on Monday nights, at least until something better comes along? You bet.

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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Even white boys got to shout

One of KM's favorite gifts this Christmas is a wireless FM transmitter that enables her to play the output from her iPod through our car's stereo system. As we were driving home tonight, she was booming "Baby Got Back" — or, as I like to call it, "The National Anthem" — from the speakers.

It's hard to think of another hip-hop or rap single that has made as pervasive an impact on modern pop culture as Sir Mix-a-Lot's infamous paean to the female posterior. An online poll conducted by VH1 last year named "Baby Got Back" the sixth greatest song of the 1990s, and I would not have been surprised if it had landed in the top five.

Which brought to mind two questions:

First: Why is it that some men are predominantly fixated upon women's buttocks, while others are breast fanciers? And why is it that, in America at least, men of color tend to be the former, and men of the Caucasian persuasion the latter?

It's clearly cultural, not genetic, if my own experience is any gauge — my DNA hails from both western-central Africa and northern Europe, but I've always been in the Mix-a-Lot camp. Not that I'm exclusive in that regard, mind you. I love pizza, but it's not the only food I crave, if you know what I mean... and I think you do.

Clearly, additional research is in order. I'll get back to you.

Second: Am I the only human alive who waxes nostalgic about The Watcher, that weird UPN series in which Sir Mix-a-Lot starred in the mid-'90s? (Like the other newcomer networks, UPN was so desperate for programming in its early seasons that practically anything that could be filmed might turn up on its air. Remember when FOX first started, and they were throwing on stuff like Werewolf and The New Adventures of Beans Baxter? Ye gods.)

For the 300 million of my fellow Americans who didn't tune in to this bizarre little morsel of televised fare, Mix-a-Lot played a nameless cyber-voyeur who lived in the penthouse of a Las Vegas hotel-casino. The walls of the Watcher's suite were lined with monitors, through which he could access the video feed from any surveillance camera in America's most hard-wired metropolis.

The show was a dramatic anthology, a Twilight Zone rip-off with the old Mix-Master introducing a trio of strange vignettes, usually dark morality tales. Most of the stories ended with the kind of forced twists that would have ended up in the Night Gallery slush pile, or at the conclusion of an M. Night Shyamalan flick. The portly Mix-a-Lot would reappear between stories to mock the unfortunate characters in sardonic tones.

Whoever signed off on the decision to cast a one-hit-wonder rapper as a Serlingesque interlocutor was some kind of mad genius. Or perhaps just mad, period.

I seem to recall that all of the female characters on The Watcher sported remarkably prominent glutei maximi. That could just be wishful thinking on my part, though.

Some enterprising house DJ should concoct a mash-up of "Baby Got Back," Queen's "Fat Bottomed Girls," and Spinal Tap's "Big Bottom," and release it as a digital download. I'd snag that for my iPod.

If I had an iPod, that is.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Eight years of News From ME

Happy blogiversary to writer, humorist, and all-around good guy Mark Evanier, whose celebrated blog, News From ME, marks its eighth year of existence today.

Mark's blog was the first I ever read on a regular basis. My enjoyment of his daily — and usually, several times daily — jottings helped inspired the genesis of SSTOL, some three and a half years ago.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Mark's oeuvre, suffice it to say that his nearly 40-year career writing for television and comics spans more credits than your average small-town phone book. For the small screen, Mark has written hundreds of sitcoms (everything from Welcome Back, Kotter to Bob, in which Bob Newhart played a comic book artist), variety shows (including That's Incredible! and the infamous Pink Lady and Jeff), and animated series (he was the producer and chief writer of Garfield and Friends, among numerous others).

In the comics world, Mark broke in as an assistant to the beyond-legendary Jack Kirby. Although he's written all kinds of comics, from superhero (DNAgents) to adventure (Blackhawk) to just plain fun (Scooby-Doo), Mark is best known as the cocreator, with artist Sergio Aragonés, of the hilarious sword-and-sorcery spoof Groo the Wanderer, about a Conanesque barbarian who loves fighting and cheese dip. (You had to be there.)

Mark and Sergio are currently teaming up to write the further adventures of Will Eisner's The Spirit, following an epic run by cartoonist Darwyn Cooke. I've met both Mark and Sergio at various comic conventions in recent years. Two nicer gentlemen you will not find, in any industry. (Sergio Aragonés is, in my never-humble opinion, one of the funniest human beings on the planet, on paper and in real life.)

If you're not already making a daily pilgrimage to News From ME, drop around and check out Mark's musings. Because Mark is one of the leading lights in the Writers Guild of America, his blog is your best source of ongoing information about the WGA strike. It's also just a wonderful read.

Here's to eight more years, Mark — and eighteen more after that!

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The category is: Cardiac Arrest

I was shocked and saddened to hear the news this morning that my old pal, Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek, has suffered a mild heart attack.



Word is that Alex is resting comfortably in a Los Angeles hospital, and is expected to be back at his podium after the holidays. I certainly hope that's the case.

For all of the ribbing Alex takes, even from his most ardent fans — and I'd count myself in that number — you don't enjoy the success he's had for nearly 25 years on the same television program unless you're awfully good at what you do. When the annals of game show history are written, Alex's name will be right there at the top.

Get well soon, Alex. And when you're back on your feet, have your people call my people. We'll do lunch.



I'll even let you pick up the check.

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

Thursday's blog has far to go

Autumn has finally arrived here in Wine Country. As the rain pitter-patters on the roof overhead and a William Friedkin-directed episode of CSI blares from the idiot box, let's check out the happenings in the rest of the pop culture world.

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Saturday, December 01, 2007

Not good, not bad... just Evel

Another chapter of my increasingly long-ago youth has departed the premises:

Evel Knievel died yesterday.



It's a fitting testament to the unparalleled weirdness that characterized America in the 1960s and '70s that one of our most recognizable entertainment icons from that period was a guy who jumped over large objects — and, on frequent occasion, failed spectacularly in the attempt — while riding on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

To young people who've grown up in the era of ubiquitous stunt reality television from Survivor to Jackass to The X Games, it probably seems bizarre that a professional daredevil was once such a novelty that his performances would sell out football stadiums, and make front page headlines in newspapers and lead stories on network news programs. But back in the day, Robert Craig Knievel Jr. — known to the world by his nickname, Evel — was that mammoth a star.

And believe me, we ate it up.

When Evel made one of his famous jumps on ABC's Wide World of Sports — the biggest thing going in televised sports in those pre-ESPN days — ratings skyrocketed. The clip of his spectacular crash at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas is one of the most repeated snippets of film in the history of broadcasting. When Evel made his ill-fated attempt to vault Idaho's Snake River Canyon in a rocket car designed by former NASA engineer Robert Truax, the world held its collective breath.

Elvis may have been the King, but Evel was the Emperor.

The youthful Uncle Swan was a major Evel Knievel fan. I owned his Ideal Toys action figure. I played dozens, maybe hundreds, of games on his Bally pinball machine. I devoured his cover story in Rolling Stone, and Shelly Saltman's unauthorized biography — the one that so incensed Evel that he assaulted Saltman with a baseball bat and spent six months in jail. I eagerly tuned in Evel's every TV appearance, even when he popped up as himself on dreadful programs I'd never have watched otherwise. A poster of Evel in his trademark white star-spangled jumpsuit adorned my bedroom wall. I paid actual money to see his self-starring 1977 biopic, Viva Knievel, and hardly cared that the man couldn't act. (The earlier Evel Knievel, starring the perpetually tan George Hamilton in the title role, was only marginally better.)

For a kid who loved comic book superheroes, Evel Knievel was as close to the real thing as one could get.

After his daredevil career ended in the early '80s, Evel Knievel's life meandered down a dark and painful road. He went bankrupt, ran repeatedly afoul of law enforcement and the Internal Revenue Service, and struggled with numerous health problems — some stemming from the world record number of broken bones Evel suffered in his infamous crashes; others, such as the hepatitis-C that necessitated a liver transplant in 1999, resulting from the numerous blood transfusions his injuries required. A lengthy history of diabetes and pulmonary fibrosis finally claimed the life of the self-proclaimed "last gladiator" at age 69.

Still, even in his final days, Evel was never far from the spotlight. Earlier this year, he found religion and was baptized on Robert Schuller's Hour of Power program in front of a nationwide TV audience. A couple of months ago, Evel Knievel: The Rock Opera premiered in Los Angeles to mostly positive reviews. Only a few days before his death, Evel settled a lawsuit against rapper Kanye West over Kanye's unauthorized use of Evel's trademarked image in one of his videos.

Despite the proliferation of self-destructive insanity in modern popular culture — and the ongoing career of Evel's son Robbie, who followed his father into the daredevil trade — we will never see the like of Evel Knievel again. He was truly an original, and unquestionably unique.

Thanks for all the thrills, Evel.

Happy landings.

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Monday, November 19, 2007

Please don't squeeze the Whipple

My next visit to the bathroom won't be quite the same...

Mr. Whipple has passed away.



If you're of a certain age, you can't help but recall those incessant commercials for Charmin toilet paper from the mid-1960s through the late '80s, in which bespectacled grocer George Whipple uttered his trademark catchphrase: "Please don't squeeze the Charmin!" Of course, once Mr. Whipple wrapped his clutching fingers around a package of that delectably pillowy bathroom tissue, he could never help getting his own squeeze on.

The actor behind the Whipple, Dick Wilson, died this morning at age 91. The British-born Riccardo DiGuglielmo grew up in Canada, and moved to the U.S. after serving in the Canadian Air Force during World War II. As an actor, he used his mother's maiden name to avoid being typecast in ethnic Italian roles.

Instead, he was typecast as a fussy merchant with a fetish for groping toilet paper. I suppose that's better, in some ways.

Wilson played numerous non-Whipple roles during his seven-decade acting career. He was a frequent guest star on Bewitched and Hogan's Heroes, and appeared in dozens of other sitcoms and TV dramas over the years. Wilson even turned up in a Cheech and Chong movie. (Rumors that he rolled a doobie out of Charmin proved to be erroneous.)

Although Procter & Gamble put Mr. Whipple out to pasture in 1985 (ads featuring Whipple continued in repeats for a few years thereafter), Wilson made a brief return to the character in 1999, when a retired Mr. Whipple returned to the supermarket to sell an upgraded version of Charmin.

Dick Wilson, I'm dedicating my next flush to you.

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Saturday, November 17, 2007

Queen of Jeopardy!

Hearty congratulations to Celeste DiNucci, winner of this year's Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions.



In one of the most unpredictable tournaments in Jeopardy! history, Celeste emerged triumphant, edging out a narrow victory over crafty Canadian Doug Hicton in the finals. Celeste garnered $250,000 and the adoration of millions for her stellar efforts.

Despite my nearly 20 years of association with Jeopardy!, and the fact that I've been privileged to meet — and in a few cases, compete against — some of the best players ever to pick up a signaling device, I've never been any great shakes at evaluating competitor talent, or at forecasting tournament outcomes. This year's Tournament of Champions was no different.

Two weeks ago, I wouldn't have figured any of the three finalists to make it out of the first round. That's not intended as an insult to them, in any way — I just thought there were several stronger players in the field. But Celeste and Doug, in particular, showed themselves worthy to stand among the game's elite. Celeste is an impressive and personable grand champion, and only the third woman in Jeopardy! history to win a Tournament of Champions.

Celeste came within a hairsbreadth of missing the finals altogether. In her semifinal match, she and Christian Haines — one of the pre-tournament favorites — finished the game tied at $15,401. Host Alex Trebek announced a tie-breaking category, "Child's Play," then read the final answer: "A Longfellow poem and a Lillian Hellman play about a girls' boarding school share this timely title." Celeste rang in first, and delivered the correct question: "What is The Children's Hour?"

Way to go, Celeste!

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

What's Up With That? #56: Jonesin' for Conan

The headline reads like a comedy bit from the subject's late-night TV show: "Priest arrested for stalking Conan O'Brien." But according to the usual news sources, it's for real.

David Ajemian, a Roman Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Boston, reportedly harassed the red-headed comic for the past year, sending O'Brien sinister e-mails and letters — on official parish stationery, no less — and threatening his parents. Ajemian referred to himself as one of Conan's "most dangerous fans."

This story is bizarre on so many levels. Of all the celebrities and semi-celebrities in the entertainment world, a guy's going to fixate on Conan O'Brien? The only person I can envision wanting to hassle Conan is Jay Leno, whose show O'Brien is scheduled to take over in a couple of years.

Besides which, at age 44, isn't Conan a trifle old to land on a priest's hit parade? I thought they mostly savored the younger flesh.

I haven't watched Conan much since he replaced David Letterman back in 1993. (Who'da thunk he'd last 14 years, much less wind up being groomed for the Tonight Show?) I've flipped past Late Night on rare occasions over the years, but Conan's style of humor still doesn't hold much appeal for me.

Apparently he's big with the seminary crowd, though.

Must be an Irish thing.

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Monday, November 05, 2007

Find a line, and picket

Although I'm not a member of the Writers Guild of America (I'm a writer, but not that kind of writer), and am not especially a big fan of unionized work stoppages, I empathize with the POV of the WGA in its latest dispute with film and television producers.

Writing is the invisible magic of media. Practically everything you see on a screen, large or small, is written by someone — more often than not, someone drastically underpaid when compared to the so-called talent on camera. The wit and wisdom of the people you see actually springs from the minds of people you don't see — people who work hard at their craft and deserve their fair share of the revenue their efforts help generate.

The problem is that writing is a deceptively simple-looking talent. Everyone thinks he or she can write — why, even a chimpanzee can sit at a keyboard and bang out strings of characters. Yet very few people can write exceptionally well, with clarity and verve and energy and imagination. Producers (and trust me, this is as true in the advertising/marketing world as it is in show business) always undervalue the contributions of writers, mostly because they think "anyone can write."

In a word: Balderdash.

The current WGA walkout reminds me of my tenuous connection to the union's last major strike in 1988. The beginning of that strike coincided with the taping of my original five-game run on Jeopardy! Although there were picket lines in front of Hollywood Center Studios, where the show was then based, on the days my shows taped, Jeopardy! itself was not directly affected because the show's writing staff weren't members of the WGA.

As the contestant coordinators explained the situation to us, game show writers were considered production assistants rather than screenwriters, and thus ineligible for WGA membership. I don't know whether that's still the case 19 years later, but all of the news accounts I've read seemed to suggest that game shows and other reality programming won't be directly affected by the strike unless other trade unions honor the WGA picket lines.

I wish there could be a less divisive method of resolving the impasse between the WGA's membership and The Powers That Be in Hollywood. But here's hoping that the writers get an honest shake before it's all through.

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Thursday, November 01, 2007

What channel is the ball game on?

Astounding news: The San Francisco Giants have changed flagship television stations.

The Giants' games have been broadcast locally on KTVU Channel 2 (which, ironically, is located in Oakland, a mere frog's leap from McAfee Coliseum, where the Athletics play) since the team arrived in the Bay Area in 1958. For the next three years, at least, the Giants will be seen on KNTV Channel 11 (or Channel 3, for those of us with Comcast cable), the San Jose-based NBC affiliate.

This move is especially puzzling to me, in that KTVU is one of the Giants' minority ownership partners. Apparently, though, the FOX affiliate grew weary of trying to shoehorn 20 or 30 baseball games around its heavyweight primetime programming, including such hits as American Idol, House, and 24.

Most of the Giants' televised games run on FOX Sports Bay Area anyway, but still, it's a shock.

Lucky for us fans, the Giants' crackerjack broadcasting unit, led by Jon "The Big Kahuna" Miller and the ever-popular duo of Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow remains intact. (The announcers work for the team, not the TV or radio stations which broadcast the games.)

Speaking of Jon, Kuip, and Kruk, all three are among the eligible nominees for the Ford C. Frick Award, the honor bestowed upon one broadcaster each year by the Baseball Hall of Fame. Longtime Giants radio voice Hank Greenwald is also on the list. Fan voting begins today, and you're allowed to vote for three nominees each day. (I already threw Jon, Hank, and Kuip a vote each.)

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

What's Up With That? #52: Here's the story of two lovely ladies

One-time teen heartthrob Maureen McCormick (I was always a Susan Dey man, but that's just how I rolled in the '70s) reportedly reveals in her upcoming autobiography that she and her Brady Bunch costar Eve Plumb shared Sapphic bliss back in the day.

The National Enquirer — and you know that if it's in the Enquirer, you can take it to the bank — quotes an unnamed source inside the publishing industry as saying that McCormick's expose, entitled Here's the Story, will blow the lid off the former Marcia Brady's struggles with drug abuse, clinical depression, and eating disorders. She also drops a dime on her girl-crush on Plumb, who played middle Brady daughter Jan:
While Maureen is not a lesbian, she reveals there were some sexual hijinks going on behind the scenes.
Sort of lends a new meaning to Jan's trademark cry, "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!" doesn't it?

Given what we already know about the carnal goings-on behind The Brady Bunch's innocent facade — eldest Brady son Barry Williams dated both his TV sister McCormick and his on-screen stepmother Florence Henderson; Brady dad Robert Reed lived a closeted existence gayer than any of his fictional wife's Day-Glo frocks — I suppose the news that Marcia and Jan practiced the sisterly affection that dared not speak its name should come as no great shock.

I just pray that word never comes to light about the torrid backstage tryst between Alice the housekeeper and little Cousin Oliver.

My childhood nostalgia can only withstand so much.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

There's no "I" in Emmys

The Emmy Awards are, generally speaking, the least interesting — and least entertaining — of the major awards shows. I never expect much from the Emmy telecast, and it rarely disappoints.

But, hokey smoke, Bullwinkle — last night's Emmys were a snoozefest and a half. That may well have been the most interminably boring awards show I have witnessed in my four decades of TV viewing. By the third hour, I had inserted broken toothpicks under my eyelids to prop them open.

Everything about the show reeked to high heaven. As host, Ryan Seacrest couldn't have been more insipid. My opinion of Ellen Degeneres's comedic talent is well known — she's the least funny big-name comic alive, next to Jerry Seinfeld — but I'd have gladly swapped Ellen for Ry-Guy in a New York minute. Heck, I'd have sooner seen Paula Abdul babble drunkenly between awards than Seacruise attempting to be glib, and failing.

Whose ridiculous idea was the theater-in-the-round presentation setup? Every time the presenters or awardees stepped to the microphone, they had their backs to most of the audience. Not only did this look awkward for those seated in the venue, but it also completely flummoxed the people on stage, who had no idea where to focus. For his part, Seacrest wandered about like little boy lost, flop sweat beading on his brow every time the camera zoomed in on him.

Even the fashions suffered a nosedive this year. In three-plus hours, I took notice of what exactly one of the attending celebs was wearing — Ali Larter of Heroes, who could appear presentable in a burlap sack and wooden clogs, but was stylishly turned out in a sleek, strapless red gown. That's all I got. Oh, and Terry O'Quinn's wife looked nice, too. You know it's bad when you're paying more attention to family members in the crowd than to the honorees.

Of course, I couldn't have cared less about any of the shows or actors that won. The Sopranos? Watched it once, years ago, wasn't impressed. 30 Rock? I'm not a sitcom guy. James Spader does an excellent job on Boston Legal, but is he really a better actor week in, week out, than, say, Kiefer Sutherland? I dunno. And Sally Field — let's call a moratorium on awards for the Flying Nun until she figures out how not to botch the acceptance speech.

The best thing about the Emmys this year that the Television Academy won't inflict this travesty on us again for another twelve months. I'll raise a cream soda to that.

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Brett Somers is so dead you couldn't revive her with a [blank]

Game show fans and TV nostalgia addicts everywhere are mourning the passing of longtime Match Game panelist Brett Somers, who died on Saturday at the age of 83.



The sassy Somers's death closely follows that of her frequent foil, Charles Nelson Reilly, who joined previously expired Match Game host Gene Rayburn in the hereafter last May.

You can always learn something by reading celebrity obituaries. For example, I knew that Somers was married to future The Odd Couple and Quincy, M.E. star Jack Klugman in 1953, and that they went their separate ways after 20-odd years of wedded bliss (or something) in the early '70s. What I didn't know until today was that, despite their parting before disco was in fashion, Klugman and the tart-tongued comedienne were never legally divorced.

A third of a century is a long time to stay married to someone you don't plan on living with ever again.

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Friday, September 07, 2007

"O zephyr winds which blow on high..."

For the past week, I've been as giddy as a puppy turned loose in the Milk-Bone factory.

Why? Friend reader, I'm telling you why: The Secrets of Isis: The Complete Series landed on my doorstep via eBay, by way of UPS. I've enjoyed a fun-fulled half-hour respite each day, screening an episode of this fondly recalled Saturday morning series from those wild and crazy 1970s.

And you know what? It's all been a stone gas, honey.



I'm pleasantly surprised at how well the show holds up. I had feared that after three decades, Isis would be unwatchable. It's terribly dated, sure, both in its production values (which, let's face it, were bargain-basement cheesy even in the mid-'70s) and in its cultural approach (there's a lot of "battle of the sexes" material in the scripts that can only be described as embarrassing today), but the stories are engaging and fun, and what the performers lack in acting ability, they make up threefold in enthusiasm.

Plus, the folks at BCI did a bang-up job of restoring the prints, so that these 30-year-old episodes look as crisp and clean as they did when first aired. The cast and crew interviews are also nicely done. It's unfortunate that JoAnna Cameron declined to participate (as she also declined an interview for the excellent Isis retrospective that appeared in the most recent Back Issue magazine), but there are some nice reminiscences from the other key performers, producers, and writers. BCI also included several other enjoyable extras, including a commentary track, photo galleries, and scripts for all 22 Isis episodes.

Knowing that this DVD package was nearing release, I commissioned a couple of new additions to my Isis art gallery. First up is this lovely panel featuring Isis in flight, drawn by animator and illustrator Dan Veesenmeyer.



I love the lightness and movement in Dan's figure drawing here. I also like the fact that he dispensed with the clunky boots Isis wore in both the TV series and its DC Comics counterpart, and provided her with more character-appropriate footwear. (I'm relatively certain that high heels had not yet reached the height of fashion in ancient Egypt.)

Next comes this traditionally styled portrait by one of my favorite pinup artists, Mitch Foust.



I own several of Mitch's artworks, but this was the first I commissioned from him directly. Mitch's eye for costuming detail is impeccable, and I always admire the gentle grace of his linework.

Our third peek at our elemental heroine comes to us courtesy of artist Jay Fife. Jay created this piece for his own amusement, and I have long admired it in his online art gallery at Comic Art Fans. When I discovered that it was for sale by his art representative, I couldn't resist bringing it home.



Jay's tonal pencils derive much more from portraiture than from comic book art, so this piece adds a distinctive fine art quality to my Isis tribute.

I'm told that JoAnna Cameron, who retired from acting not long after her Isis adventures, is now a successful executive in the hospitality industry in Hawaii. I wonder whether she ever catches a strong trade wind and utters her trademark command: "O zephyr winds which blow on high, lift me now so I can fly!"

I'd pay good money to see that.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

He'll be the Law & Order candidate

Is he an actor, or a politician? Is he a politician, or an actor? Is he a floor wax, or a dessert topping?

Apparently, Fred Thompson is all of the above.

The erstwhile Law & Order star (and former U.S. Senator from Tennessee) made it official last night on the Tonight Show, tossing his commodious hat into the 2008 Presidential ring. Comparisons were immediately made to the late Ronald Reagan, whom Thompson resembles most in that (a) Reagan also was a conservative Republican; and (b) Reagan couldn't really act, either.

Of course, I live in a state governed by Conan the Barbarian — heck, I even voted to reelect the guy — so I'm probably not in a position to cast aspersions. (Which is okay anyway, because the elbow on my aspersion-casting arm has been giving me fits of late.) Lest we forget, however, we in this fine country have a long and storied history of electing entertainers to public office. A few examples, some of which you may recall:
  • George Murphy, a Broadway veteran and musical film star who served a term as president of the Screen Actors Guild, was a Republican Senator from California in the 1960s. Tom Lehrer even waxed poetic in song about the guy: "At last we have a Senator who can really sing and dance."

  • Fred Grandy (assistant purser Burl "Gopher" Smith on The Love Boat) was a Republican Representative from Iowa for eight years, beginning in 1986. He narrowly missed being elected Governor of the Hawkeye State in 1994.

  • Ben Jones (goofy mechanic Cooter Davenport on The Dukes of Hazzard) was a Democratic Congressman from Georgia from 1988 to 1992. He was defeated in a Virginia Congressional race in 2002.

  • Jerry Springer, later a notorious tabloid TV host and Hasselhoff foil, was the Democratic mayor of Cincinnati in the late '70s.

  • Sonny Bono, the less talented half of the popular musical/comedy team Sonny and Cher, served two terms in Congress as a Republican representing Palm Springs (after serving as the city's mayor) before a high-speed encounter with a tree on a Lake Tahoe ski slope ended both his political career and his life.

  • Professional wrestler Jesse "The Body" Ventura was elected Governor of Minnesota in 1998. (Ten years later, I still snicker when I type that.)

  • Sheila Kuehl, who as Sheila James played nerdy Zelda Gilroy on the classic '50s sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, has been a prominent California state legislator since 1994.

  • Former Green Bay Packers quarterback and TV actor Alan Autry (deputy Bubba Skinner on the long-running drama In the Heat of the Night) is currently the mayor of Fresno.

  • Film legend and Academy Award-winning director Clint Eastwood served a much-publicized term as mayor of Carmel, California, in the mid-'80s.
Just so we're clear, though: The day Britney Spears gets elected to public office, I'm buying a beach house in Greece.

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Why do they call it Hump Day, when most people make love on the weekends?

So I'm rifling through the news on this sultry Wednesday morning, and here's what leaped off the screen at me...
  • Speaking of sultry, Raquel Welch is 67 today. You gentlemen of a certain age will understand what that means. You gentlemen younger than a certain age... well, you should have been there, is all I'm saying.

  • Again speaking of sultry, Halle Berry is expecting her first child at age 41. I might be going out on a limb here, but I'll bet that's going to be one good-looking baby.

  • Former FOX and MSNBC anchor Rita Cosby's new book, Blonde Ambition: The Untold Story Behind Anna Nicole Smith's Death, alleges that Anna Nicole's baby-daddy Larry Birkhead and her attorney-slash-boyfriend Howard K. Stern were gay lovers. Lawsuits will ensue. Bill Cosby — no relation to Rita — recommended that all parties involved enjoy a Jell-O Pudding Pop and have a Coke and a smile.

  • Speaking of allegedly gay fellows named Larry, the distinguished gentleman from Idaho has decided that he may want to keep his Senate seat after all. That thud you just heard was the Republican National Committee fainting en masse.

  • Speaking of way-past-allegedly gay fellows named Larry, the Wachowski brother formerly known as Larry (as in the Wachowski Brothers of The Matrix fame) is now also formerly a Wachowski brother. He's now officially a Wachowski sister named Lana. I believe Matrix star Keanu Reeves said it best: Whoa.

  • Good to hear that Paula Cole is touring and recording again (with Mandy Moore, no less), after nearly a decade away from the music business. She's a terrific talent, and I hope her comeback brings her much success. That said, if I never had to hear "I Don't Want to Wait" again in this lifetime, that would be just dandy with me. It's tough being the father of a Dawson's Creek fanatic.

  • Not so good to hear that Kelly Clarkson is attempting to jump-start her aborted tour, previously canceled due to overwhelming ennui on the part of ticket-buying America, by playing smaller halls. You are so over, Miss Thing. Maybe you and Justin can still hang out.

  • They still love him in France: Jerry Lewis took another stumble down the long, dark road toward oblivion during his annual Labor Day telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, when he dropped the f-pejorative in a joke about a cameraman's gay family member on live TV. This is the same Jerry who, in a televised interview following the death of entertainment icon Merv Griffin, opined that Merv "deserved to die" from prostate cancer, because he didn't seek earlier and more aggressive treatment. Can you arrange to let him keep the change for his kids?

  • A friend gave the following report about Mary-Kate Olsen's recent adventures at a trendy New York nightclub: "Mary-Kate was wearing a see-through green dress. She was completely wasted, she was humping and grinding against a column with another girl. Then she was flailing all over the dance floor. Later, Mary-Kate made out with various questionable men while friends took pictures. She then fell over onto a table and proceeded to break every glass on the table before toppling over onto everyone sitting behind her." See what happens when you don't eat properly, kids? Your brain turns into Cream of Wheat.

  • This couldn't possibly be a worse casting decision: Nicolas Cage as Magnum, P.I.?

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Tuesday turkey trot

Uncle Swan here, blazing through a barrage of lightning-quick thoughts, observations, and emotional outbursts. Steady as she goes, Captain.

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

Got a little Captain in you?

Moments ago, a young woman with the charming name of Sabra Elise Johnson (no relation, I take it, to Israel's greatest superheroine) won this season's championship on So You Think You Can Dance.



Okay, now that I've just admitted to watching So You Think You Can Dance, I feel an overwhelming need to recoup my man cred.

How's this...

It's not too early to remind you that Wednesday, September 19 — just over a month from today — is Talk Like a Pirate Day.



Perhaps coincidentally, a genealogical society known as English Heritage is inviting people with traceable pirate ancestry to a series of gatherings being held in the U.K. over the next two weekends. This weekend, pirate descendants will shiver their timbers at Dover Castle in Kent; next weekend, swashes will be buckled at Whitby Abbey in North Yorks.

Anyone sharing the surname of any of the six most legendary English pirates — Sir Henry Morgan (namesake of a popular brand of spiced rum), Captain William Kidd, Edward Teach (better known as Blackbeard), John "Calico Jack" Rackham, Anne Bonny, or Mary Read — gets into the shindig at no charge.

Everyone knows pirates can't pass up a freebie.

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

I'll take Deceased Game Show Creators for $2000, Alex

I never had the pleasure of meeting Merv Griffin. But it's fair to say that Merv — who died this morning at the age of 82 following a battle with prostate cancer — had as direct and as profound an impact on my life as anyone else whom I never met.

He was, after all, responsible for the 15 minutes of fame that have been my calling card for nearly 20 years.

As has been widely chronicled, Merv Griffin created America's favorite quiz show, Jeopardy! in the 1960s. It's the modern version of the show, which began airing in 1984 and continues as a syndication juggernaut today, where I made my national television debut in 1988. Thanks to Merv's forward-thinking genius, an incredulous, fresh-faced kid got the chance to steal a soupçon of celebrity that has proven surprisingly difficult to escape.

Even though my Jeopardy! journey has returned me briefly to the spotlight four times since my original five-game run — the 1988 Tournament of Champions, ABC's Super Jeopardy! tournament in the summer of 1990, a special called Jeopardy! Battle of the Bay Area Brains in 1998, and the Ultimate Tournament of Champions two years ago — I never found myself face to face with the man who started it all. The closest my ship and Merv's ever came to passing in the night was during the Super Jeopardy! taping, when the contestants were domiciled at the Beverly Hilton, which Merv had recently purchased. The place was a cacophony of renovation at the time — hordes of construction workers surrounded me at every turn, but not the elusive Mr. Griffin.

Merv sold Jeopardy! and its lowest-common-denominator companion property, Wheel of Fortune, to the Sony Pictures empire in the mid-'90s. Still, his stamp remained on the quiz show that helped build his legend, in the form of the oft-imitated theme music, which Merv composed.

I still have the letter, on Merv Griffin Enterprises stationery emblazoned with Merv's familiar namesake mythological creature logo, which first heralded my entry into game show history. I just wish I'd had the opportunity, just once, to shake the man's hand and let him know how much I've loved being a minuscule cog in his entertainment wheel.

That, and the $103K.

So long, Merv. Thanks for all the fun. (And for all the checks.) Wherever you are, be sure you phrase your responses in the form of a question.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Send in the pinch-hitters

Sometimes, nice guys finish first. Or at least tie for second.

Congratulations to Drew Carey, who beat out a raft of likely (and, in the case of Rosie O'Donnell, unlikely) suspects to land the coveted hosting duties on The Price is Right.

Departing TPIR host Bob Barker commented on the Carey signing, "I'm cool with it." (Although you know that with the substantial nest egg Bob's carrying into his cozy retirement, he'd be cool with whomever CBS hired to replace him: Mr. T; Elvira, Mistress of the Dark; Wendy the Snapple Lady; or Wilbur, Zuckerman's famous pig.)

Congratulations also to the Giants' Mark Sweeney, whose first-pitch double in the seventh inning of last night's loss to the Atlanta Braves was the 150th pinch hit of his journeyman major league career. The achievement ties Sweeney with the legendary Manny Mota for second place on baseball's all-time pinch hits list. (Lenny Harris holds the record, with 212.)

Speaking of Manny Mota, here's a story I heard back in my college days, from a friend who played center field for the Pepperdine University Waves.

During his years with the Dodgers, Mota had a favorite bat that traveled with him everywhere. One season, Mota departed his native Dominican Republic for spring training having neglected to pack this particular bat. Mota had a horrendous spring that year — as Crash Davis might say, Manny couldn't hit water if he fell out of a [expletive deleted] boat. Near the end of spring training, Mota's wife, at home in the Dominican, received a terse telegram from her husband. The message contained but three words: "Send the bat."

Perhaps if Drew Carey struggles to sink his putts in TPIR's golf game, he can summon Bob Barker's putter to the rescue.

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Monday, July 23, 2007

Musical Monday

It's a toasty July Monday here in Wine Country, and for whatever reason, everything in the news today reminds me of the lyrics of an old pop song. I'll show you what I mean...
  • Would Jesus wear a Rolex on His television show? For the second time in two weeks, someone who figured prominently in a research paper I wrote in college has shuffled off this mortal coil: first porn magnate Jim Mitchell; now Tammy Faye Messner, once better known as Tammy Faye Bakker, co-ringleader of the disgraced (no pun intended) TV ministry The PTL Club. And no, it wasn't the same paper — I wrote my senior thesis on televangelism.

  • You probably think this song is about you — don't you? Lindsay Lohan is bragging to friends about how she "teased those boys" in rehab by walking around the facility stark naked. At the same time, she's seeking legal assistance to ensure that nude photos taken by a former flame never see the light of day, fearing the pics might "ruin her career." Hey, Linds: Get over yourself. Soon. It's your asinine behavior — on and off set — that's going to slam-dunk your career, not a few salty Polaroids. Oh, and before you imagine that the entire world is eager to behold your bony frame in the altogether, I have a word for you: Cheeseburger.

  • I just had to look, having read the book. Were you among the legions hanging out on your local bookseller's doorstep at midnight Saturday, eager to snatch up your copy of the final installment in the Harry Potter saga? If so, then you, friend reader, need a life. Or a significant other. Or both. Rumor has it that J.K. Rowling is scouring the list of potential Potter titles I posted in this space a couple of years ago, just in case she gets a future urge to score another several million pounds.

  • Oh, Mandy — you came and you gave without taking. No one should be surprised that Criminal Minds star Mandy Patinkin abruptly quit the hit crime series just as filming was about to begin for the show's third season. Teleholics will recall that Patinkin pulled a similar stunt a decade ago, when he walked off the set of the medical drama Chicago Hope. Thomas Gibson, who costarred with Patinkin on both Minds and Hope, has got to be wondering what he did to deserve this. (Two words, Thomas: Jenna Elfman.)

  • Hello, Daddy, hello, Mom; I'm your ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb! Tony Award-winning stage actress Cherry Jones, probably most familiar to audiences as Matt Damon's mother in Ocean's Twelve, has signed to portray newly elected President Allison Taylor on the seventh season of 24. Let's hope she fares better as POTUS than Geena Davis did on the short-lived Commander in Chief. (Davis, incidentally, is rumored to be CBS's top choice to replace the aforementioned Mr. Patinkin.)

  • When you get that notion, put your backfield in motion. Speaking of POTUS, there was good news and bad news from the White House this past weekend. The good news: Doctors pronounced the polyps removed from President Bush's colon 100% cancer-free. The bad news: George W. will continue to be a cancer in everyone else's butt for another year and a half.

  • Well, I spent some time in the Mudville Nine, watchin' it from the bench. A truly sad story from minor league baseball: Mike Coolbaugh, first base coach for the Tulsa Drillers — the Colorado Rockies' AA affiliate — was struck in the head and killed yesterday by a line drive off the bat of teammate Tino Garcia. Coolbaugh played briefly in the majors earlier in this decade, with both the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals. He had taken the coaching position with the Drillers only three weeks ago. He leaves behind a wife and two children, with another baby due in October. Tragic.

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Saturday, July 21, 2007

Not another re-Pete

Whoa...

I just this moment read about the unexpected passing of longtime Bay Area news anchor Pete Wilson at the age of 62.

Wilson — not to be confused with the former California governor of the same name — underwent hip replacement surgery at Stanford University Medical Center on Thursday. Apparently, he suffered a massive heart attack during the operation. After a day on life support, Wilson died late last evening.



A multiple Emmy and Peabody Award-winning journalist, Wilson was an inescapable fixture on Bay Area television for three decades — most recently on KGO, the San Francisco ABC affiliate. Before joining KGO, he enjoyed a lengthy run on KRON, which at the time was NBC's Bay Area outlet. When NBC shifted its contract to another station in the market, Wilson was one of the numerous personalities who departed KRON for greener pastures.

In addition to his TV anchoring duties, Wilson hosted a popular talk show on KGO 810 NewsTalk radio, where he gained a reputation for curmudgeonly, shoot-from-the-lip commentary. Last year on his show, Wilson harshly criticized San Francisco Supervisor Bevan Dufty, who is gay, for adopting a child in partnership with a lesbian friend. Peter later apologized for the tone — but not the content — of his remarks.

Whether people admired or despised him — and he was exactly the sort of outspoken, larger-than-life personality who generated such impassioned perspectives — everyone who watched TV or listened to talk radio in northern California knew Pete Wilson. Even if they sometimes mixed him up with the Republican ex-governor.

Wilson is survived by his wife and son. We here at SSTOL extend our condolences to his family, friends, colleagues, and fans.

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Friday, June 15, 2007

Out of time!

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to the late Don Herbert, better known to generations of teleholics as "Mr. Wizard." Herbert's 1950s show, Watch Mr. Wizard, pioneered the concept that television for kids could be educational without being either condescending or boring. In the '80s, Herbert returned to the tube on Nickelodeon, with Mr. Wizard's World, bringing his genial blend of professorial wisdom and whiz-bang science to a whole new audience.



Had there been no Mr. Wizard, we would never have known Beakman's World or Bill Nye, the Science Guy. Don Herbert made being a science nerd cool — which, for those of us who are nerds, is no small accomplishment. We'll miss you, Mr. Wizard.

The funny thing about my Common Elements art gallery — the one in which comic artists pair up unrelated superheroes who have some characteristic in common — is that on occasion, the characters involved share more than one "common element." Sometimes, in fact, there are several common elements in the piece that I didn't even consider when I developed the concept.

Take, for example, this newly arrived gem from the pen of longtime comics stalwart Bob Layton. It features Booster Gold, one of the central figures in DC Comics' recently concluded maxiseries 52, alongside the legendary Captain America. (You can click the pic to see it in greater detail.)



When this concept came to me, I had one — and really, only one — Common Element in mind between Booster and Cap. Both heroes, although their adventures are set in the present day, began their careers in other time periods: Captain America in the 1940s during World War II, Booster Gold in the 25th century. Hence the title I assigned to the concept: "Out of Time."

From the beginning, I wanted Bob Layton to draw this Common Element. Layton is best known in comic circles as "the Iron Man guy," thanks to his lengthy association with the Golden Avenger as both artist and writer, often in partnership with scripter David Michelinie. Bob's also recognized as one of the most gifted inkers in the industry. From my perspective, it's his overall artistic talent — penciling, inking, and conceptual design — that makes him great.

When the opportunity arose to commission Bob, I jumped at the chance to turn him loose on my "out of time" idea. As I was rounding up pictures of Cap and Booster to send to Bob as reference, I noted (to my surprise, given that I hadn't seen it before) that the two heroes shared an even more obvious commonality than the one I'd envisioned: the five-pointed star motif emblazoned on their rippling pectorals. How could I have missed that? I don't know, but I did, until I had the pictures of each character on the screen in front of me.

Since I added the scan of this artwork to my permanent gallery at Comic Art Fans, other collectors have pointed out additional connections between Booster and Cap. For one, both are blond. For another, both were recently killed off in their respective storylines — Booster, though, has already been "resurrected," and I don't know a single comics fan who doesn't believe that Captain America will make a triumphant return as well.

I also thought of one more similarity. Both Cap and Booster, at one point in their careers, abandoned their more familiar code names and costumes in favor of a temporary superhero identity. Captain America, disillusioned by the Watergate scandal, shrugged off his iconic red-white-and-blue for several months in the mid-1970s, in the guise of the more iconoclastic Nomad. During the year-long events of 52, Booster Gold — who at the time was believed to be dead — became the mysterious Supernova, whose real identity wasn't revealed (to the characters or the audience) until late in the series' run. (Astute readers, however, had solved the puzzle long before Supernova unmasked.) Someday, I'd like to team Nomad and Supernova in another Common Elements commission that ties these threads together.

Speaking of Booster Gold, the current issue of Back Issue magazine (#22) features an excellent article about Booster and his erstwhile partner, the Blue Beetle. If you look closely, you'll see my Booster pinup — penciled by Booster's creator Dan Jurgens, and inked by veteran Joe Rubinstein — smiling back at you on page 78.



Thanks to Back Issue editor Michael Eury for using my contribution!

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Monday, May 28, 2007

How's that for a topper?

What? Charles Nelson Reilly is dead? I didn't even know that he was sick.



What? Charles Nelson Reilly was gay? I didn't even know... well, yeah, I did, too. (Didn't we all?)

My earliest memories of Sir Charles, like those of many of my generation, date back to the '60s sitcom The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, wherein Reilly played fussbudgety Claymore Gregg, the heir and landlord, respectively, to the series' two title characters. And of course, like many addicted to Saturday morning TV in the '70s, I recall Reilly eking out a living in embarrassing kidvid dreck like Lidsville (which, though beneath Reilly's considerable talents, was actually enjoyable) and Uncle Croc's Block (the less said about which, the better).

But mostly, I remember Charles for his seemingly unlimited witty ripostes as a game show panelist, verbally sparring with Gene Rayburn and Brett Somers on Match Game, or trading double entendres with the likes of Rose Marie on Hollywood Squares.

Which, when one thinks about it, is rather a shame, because not many people who laughed at the flamboyant bon vivant in the Coke-bottle glasses and Day-Glo ascot realized that the guy was a Tony Award-winning stage actor (for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, 1962) or a Tony-nominated theatrical director (for The Gin Game, 1997). All of which, he was.

Your fans will miss you, Chuck. Count me among them.

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Friday, May 25, 2007

Walk like an Egyptian

I know, I know... quite a few of you are all jazzed up today because it's the 30th anniversary of the original Star Wars film, which premiered in theaters on this date in 1977.

SSTOL regulars know that I'm not much of a Star Wars fan. I've mentioned before that when the original film opened, I saw it twice — not because I was enthralled by it, but because everyone else I knew babbled so enthusiastically about the picture that I was certain they couldn't be talking about the same cheesy, derivative, abysmally acted movie I saw the first time. So this 30-year celebration holds no joy for me.

On the other hand, here's a news flash that gets my motor running.



This week, the media distribution company BCI announced the upcoming DVD release of The Secrets of Isis, the classic '70s TV series starring JoAnna Cameron as the lovely and stalwart Egyptian-flavored superheroine. The complete three-disc box set will be available on July 24.

Now that's what I'm talking about.



It's about time the mighty Isis received her just due. I speak here of the original, accept-no-substitutes model, not the almost unrecognizable "reimagined" version of Isis that DC Comics trotted out in the weekly comic series 52 recently — the one whose death triggered the worldwide slaughter perpetrated by Captain Marvel's nemesis, Black Adam. And certainly not the Isis-in-name-only who appears from time to time in The Legend of Isis, a comic book created by Bluewater Productions. (In fairness, I do enjoy the latter series for what it is, even though I wish they'd called the lead character by a different name. It's a fun, entertaining comic. I highly recommend the trade paperback that incorporates the first several issues.)

So, in celebration of the announced DVD release, here's my little tribute to the Saturday morning superstar. Leading off, Isis takes to the skies, in this recently commissioned artwork by Michael McDaniel.



Next, we get Isis up close and personal, in a nicely rendered portrait by Scott Jones, the artist better known as Shade.



Finally, the great Michael Dooney takes Isis back to her Egyptian roots, in this stylish, beautifully delineated piece.



I can hardly wait for July 24. "O mighty Isis!"

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

And the American Idol is...

...Jordin Sparks!



Good choice, America.

Jordin was our family favorite from the beginning of the competition, in part because she was familiar to us from her appearances on America's Most Talented Kids a few years back, and in part because her family is the one that looks the most like ours. (Although I'm pretty sure Phillippi Sparks would kick my butt in the father-on-father physical challenges.)

Jordin might not have been the best singer in this year's Idol cast — Melinda Doolittle held that distinction — but Jordin has that ineffable je ne sais quoi that none of her competitors possesses: star quality. Your eye immediately tracks to her whenever she appears on camera. Her personality lights up the screen.



Vocal coaches will help Jordin refine her monumental, but often poorly controlled, singing talents. (As everyone associated with the show kept reminding us ad nauseum, she's only 17. That powerful voice will only get bigger and richer in the years to come.) But no coach can teach charisma — you're born with it, or you aren't.

Jordin exudes it. She'll be a superstar long after Idol has run its course.

It couldn't happen to a nicer kid.

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Monday, May 21, 2007

The Swan Tunes In: Welcome to Fall Schedule Hell

In my next life, I'm going to be a television programming executive.

So far as I can determine, it's a job that requires no talent, no foresight, no sensitivity, and no ability to either predict or produce successful results.

In other words, it's right up my alley.

Should you doubt my assessment, friend reader, please consider that some television programming executive greenlighted each of the following series for the upcoming fall season. Now, granted, I haven't seen any of the pilots for these shows. But I'm a reasonably intelligent individual — with the Jeopardy! tapes to prove it — and I can tell you that not a single one of these series has any chance of being a hit. Much less, of being any good.

Just attempt to imagine, if you will, any sane and perceptive person wanting to impose this dreck on his or her fragile psyche:
  • Journeyman (NBC). It's billed as "a romantic mystery-drama" about a newspaper reporter who travels through time. They lost me at "romantic mystery-drama," which is a good thing, because otherwise I'd have been laughing hysterically at the point when they mentioned "travels through time." This must be about the guy who used to write the paper that showed up on Kyle Chandler's doorstep every week on Early Edition.

  • Cavemen (ABC). The hypersensitive Neanderthals from the Geico insurance commercials get their own situation comedy. Has everyone at ABC already forgotten the Max Headroom debacle? Oh, that's right — the people running ABC today were in kindergarten when Max Headroom was on.

  • Kid Nation (CBS). In this reality series, a motley collection of 40 preteen and early adolescent kids are turned loose to create their own miniature society in a New Mexico ghost town. I know what you're thinking — I read Lord of the Flies, too. I wouldn't want to be the fat kid with glasses in this show.

  • Moonlight (CBS). An immortal vampire plays detective. I didn't watch this when it was called Forever Knight or Angel, and I certainly won't be watching it now. Why don't TV vampires ever go into more logical professions — say, meatcutting, or vascular surgery?

  • Viva Laughlin (CBS). X-Men star Hugh Jackman is responsible for this bizarre bit of business. It's a "musical drama" about a casino in Laughlin, Nevada (what, you thought Biloxi, maybe?), in which the characters will frequently pause the action to lip-synch pop tunes. Two words: Cop Rock. Not even Wolverine has the power to save this one.

  • Chuck (NBC). Given that the Peacock Network is going all Heroes, all the time this fall (seriously — all but one of NBC's new series revolves around a science fiction or fantasy element), I should not be surprised that 30 Rock scheduled this red-headed step-child of WarGames and D.A.R.Y.L. It's about a youthful computer geek who gets a Super-Pentium processor lodged in his skull and turns into a one-man counterintelligence agency. Yeah, that'll be good.

  • Reaper (The CW). A guy discovers that his parents sold his soul to Satan, so he has to run around capturing escapees from Hell. (Some of whom, apparently, have taken up jobs in television programming.) Of course, it's on The CW, so no one will ever even know it was on.

  • The Return of Jezebel James (FOX). Two sisters who hate each other reconnect when one becomes a birth surrogate for the other. Aside from its seemingly limited premise — once the baby comes, where does the story go from there? — this offering does have two positive factors in its favor: costars Parker Posey and Lauren Ambrose, who could make a knitting bee seem fun.

  • The Bionic Woman (NBC). Some jokes write themselves.
Now, I ask you: Don't you suppose you and I could devise better programming than this over a sushi lunch some afternoon? I think we ought at least to try.

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Idol Gives Black... and Ellen too



Throughout last night's American Idol charity extravaganza, "Idol Gives Back," two thoughts kept circling the porcelain bowl of my mind:
  1. They're not going to be able to boot a contestant off after all this feel-good, group-hug folderol.
  2. This reminds me of that dreadful 1970s movie Americathon, in which the President of the United States (played by John Ritter, of all people) hosts a telethon to raise money to bail the country out of bankruptcy,
I was right, on both counts.

A few highlights from two hours of Idol pimping and groveling:
  • Loved: Earth, Wind & Fire. You can bet your last money that any show on which Verdine White and the boys blow out "Boogie Wonderland" is gonna be a stone gas, honey.
  • Hated: Rascal Flatts. Here's a tip for convincing me to dig into my pocket for a donation: Don't make me listen to country music. Ever.

  • Loved: Jack Black. Jack usually thinks he's funnier than I think he is, but his hilarious rendition of Seal's "Kiss from a Rose" (complete with actual Seal) was the comedic highlight of the evening.
  • Hated: Celine and Dead Elvis. Can we knock it off already with the digital resurrections of deceased celebrities? Just because we have the technology, doesn't mean we ought to use it. (Celine is still alive, though, am I right?)

  • Loved: The African Children's Choir. I'm no softie, but have you ever seen a cuter collection of kids anywhere?
  • Hated: Josh Groban. Shut up, Josh, you poseur, and let the cute kids sing. We can hear boring, overwrought lounge acts (***cough*** Bolton ***cough***) anytime.

  • Loved: Ellen DeGeneres tossing 100 large into the poverty pot. If only Idol's producers had taken the dough they wasted digitizing Mr. Graceland and put it into the pot as well.
  • Hated: Way too much exploitation of poor, sick people. When you're starving or dying from AIDS in 100-degree heat, the last thing you need is Simon Cowell and a camera crew in your face. If you really want to help, Simon, whack a chunk off your five-million-dollar-per-week haul and get some construction crews, bottled water, and pharmaceuticals up in here.

  • Loved: Annie Lennox. One of my favorite voices of all time. And is it just me, or does Annie keep getting hotter ever year? She was rocking that cleavage like it was the San Andreas Fault.
  • Hated: Carrie Underwear and her two pounds of makeup, fawning over hungry black children. Go scrape your face, honey child, and maybe listen to an Annie Lennox CD or three while you're at it.

  • Loved: Seeing Micky Dolenz getting his groove on in the celebrity lip-synch montage. You go, Monkee man. Take the last train to Clarkson, and I'll meet you at the station.
  • Hated: Seeing Teri Hatcher's Joan Riverseque plastic surgery face in that same bit of footage. You go, Desperate Housewife — go home, before you terrify the poor kids. And take that infernal windbag Dr. Phil with you.

  • Loved: Jeff Beck. One of my guitar heroes from way back.
  • Hated: Having to listen to Kelly Clarkson sing while the Beckmeister kicked out the jams.

  • Loved: Being right about no one getting kicked off this week.
  • Hated: Being right about no one getting kicked off this week.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Quiz Kid loses his final match

Sad news today for Bay Area game show fanatics.

Daniel Barclay, a young man who dazzled viewers of the local cable program Quiz Kids a few years back, was found dead on a Cape Cod beach last Friday, the apparent victim of a rafting accident.



Quiz Kids, which airs on San Francisco's KRON-4 on Saturday afternoons, pits teams of high school brainiacs against one another in the format of the venerable G.E. College Bowl program. Although I usually hold my own as a home viewer — clinging desperately to my rapidly fading Jeopardy! cred — some of these Quiz Kids are scary smart.

Daniel Barclay may have been one of the brightest youngsters ever featured on the show. Certainly, he was among the most memorable.

During the years when Daniel led the Menlo-Atherton High squad, his team was unbeatable. Menlo-Atherton won the Quiz Kids championship four years running, besting a field of 40-plus rival schools. More often than not, Daniel came on like a one-man encyclopedic wrecking crew, pouncing on question after question with catlike precision and Rutteresque knowledge. As Quiz Kids master of ceremonies Brad Friedman — "the best host on the West Coast," as he is introduced each week — told the San Francisco Chronicle:
He knew when I started a question exactly where I was going before I had the words out. It was eerie. Other kids have come to do that since, but no one has come close to doing it as well as he did.
Few things in life are more tragic than the loss of a young life that held so much promise for a brilliant future. As a father — and as a fan — my heart breaks for the Barclay family.

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Good news, for a change

Our long national nightmare is over:

Sanjaya Malakar has been eliminated on American Idol.

Our long basketball nightmare is over:

The Golden State Warriors have landed in the NBA playoffs for the first time since 1994. That's 13 seasons, people. Thirteen endless, agonizing seasons.

That rumble you feel in the earth beneath your feet is not seismic activity. It's me doing my "Goodbye Sanjaya; hello playoffs" happy dance.

And oh, yes...

Barry Bonds
: 738 career home runs, and climbing. Just 17 behind Henry Aaron.

Your T-shirt is correct, Sanjaya: Life is beautiful.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

American Idol '07: Top Ten



Now that we know who will comprise the cast of this summer's American Idol Tour — you've already bought your tickets, right? — it's time to review the final decad of hopefuls and see how they stack up. It's truly anyone's guess as to the order in which some of the lesser lights will depart the big stage — let's be frank; we didn't expect some of these karaoke kings and queens to still be in the running at this juncture — but if I ruled the FOX front office, here's how it might go down.
  • Sanjaya. Every season, there's one no-talent male pretender who makes it far deeper into the contest than he has any right. This year's Kevin Covais (or Jon Peter Lewis, if you prefer) is this kid who's channeling Leif Garrett's '70s hair, Michael Jackson's whispery androgeny, and the goofy adolescent grin of practically every member of Menudo.

  • Haley. I'd have bet krugerrands against Krispy Kremes that Pageant Girl would have bitten the proscenium dust weeks ago. It's a wonder what a backless, braless top and a pair of Daisy Dukes can accomplish for one's vote totals.

  • Chris Richardson. Man, I hate listening to this guy sing. His voice is dull to the point of atonality, and that biting nasal timbre sets my molars on edge. And frankly, I don't see much in the way of performance skills, either. His ship has sailed.

  • Phil. That Phil is still in the hunt — and deservedly so, given the competition — offers condemning testimony against the quality of this year's Idol field. He's a good but thoroughly unremarkable vocalist, with no realistic hope of selling a CD.

  • Gina. She'd be doing much better without the sloppy pierced-tongue enunciation, the faux-goth crankiness, and the schizophrenic performance style. Enough with the special effects — just sing, girlfriend. That histrionic Rolling Stones cover last week was six kinds of wretched.

  • Blake. I dig the vocal percussion when he breaks that out, but what we've observed in recent weeks is that Blake's singing voice just isn't all that interesting. He's still second-best among the guys, but in this crop, that's really a backhanded compliment.

  • Chris Sligh. I like your voice, Chris, and more often than not, I find you an appealing performer in your own shaggy, shambling way. But the attitude is wearing on me, dawg. Just so you know. You could show a little warmth and genuineness once in a while. But you'll probably be the last male standing.

  • Lakisha. She has a powerful voice, and uses it well. Among the top three ladies, though, she's the least winsome onstage — she doesn't offer a real alternative to Jordin's youthful sweetness or Melinda's aw-shucks appeal. That, I think, will mean the difference.

  • Jordin. From a technical perspective, I think it's fair to say that Jordin is the Idol who has grown the most rapidly throughout the competition cycle to date. Melinda and Lakisha came into the field about as good as they can be — given their respective talents, that's nothing to sneeze at — whereas Jordin keeps improving round after round (sometimes dramatically, as last week's bravura performance showed). She'll give the front-runner a worthy chase.

  • Melinda. How can you not love Melinda? Not only does she have the most developed vocal and performance skills in this field — when she delivers a lyric, you believe every word — but she has staked her claim as one of the most likable contestants in Idol history. Her only risk factor at this point is Jordin picking up the majority of the youth vote when such people as Sanjaya and the two Chrises take their leave.
My forecasting savvy seems to be holding up fairly well — I correctly predicted 10 of this season's Top 12. But amid the insanity that is American Idol, weird things sometimes happen. (And no, I don't just mean Simon Cowell.) We'll know in ten weeks how I fared the rest of the way.

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Jeopardy! — like kissing your twin sisters

Since I always get inundated with queries after any major event occurs on Jeopardy!, I presume that some of you are wondering about my take on the show's unprecedented three-player tie game last night.

Wonder no more.



First, let's catch up the latecomers in the group. On the Jeopardy! episode that aired Friday, March 16, defending champion Scott Weiss (I'll wait a moment for the Rocky Horror fans to stop hissing) led going into the Final Jeopardy round with a score of $13,400. Each of Scott's opponents, Jamey Kirby and Anders Martinson, had exactly $8,000. Both Jamey and Anders risked their entire bankrolls on the Final Jeopardy clue, answered correctly, and doubled their scores to $16,000. After Scott's correct response was revealed, we discovered that he had wagered $2,600, upping his score to $16,000 and creating the first three-winner game in Jeopardy! history.

Now, suppose I had found myself in Scott's position. Would I have bet for the tie?

Simple answer: No. For three reasons:
  1. I always played Jeopardy! to win (even in the two games — in Super Jeopardy! and Round Two of the Ultimate Tournament of Champions — in which victory had become increasingly unlikely by the time Final Jeopardy arrived), and would again if I had another opportunity. To do otherwise makes a mockery of the game, in my opinion. (Try to imagine a Super Bowl coach playing for a tie.) Nothing frustrates me as a viewer more than seeing a front-running J! contestant lose a game or end up in a tie situation for no other reason than a failure to bet adequately — an embarrassment that occurs all too often on the show.

  2. As a defending champion, I would much rather play my next game against two first-time players than against two opponents with an entire game's worth of stage confidence and buzzer practice. That's the main reason why the Jeopardy! contestant staff always counsels players never to play for the tie. If you've earned the champion's advantage with a prior victory or two, why would you want to minimize that edge?

  3. Frankly, it would never have occurred to me. My statistical analysis skills suck. (For my money, today's players think way too much about wagering strategies. But that's just me.)
None of this is intended to be critical of Scott, who seems like a decent fellow who saw an opportunity to make a little game show history and seized it. (He explains this himself over on the Jeopardy! discussion forums.) It's just not the way I would have played it.

If either Jamey or Anders wins Monday's game, Scott may rethink his decision.

Or he may not.

(Point of order: Last night's show was not, as has been widely reported, the first three-way tie in modern Jeopardy! history. On September 11, 1984, during the first week of the Alex Trebek era, there was a game in which all three contestants finished with zero scores. Weiss-Kirby-Martinson I was the first game with a positive three-way tie, and thus three cochampions.)

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Swan Tunes In: Open All Night

Anyone familiar with my television viewing habits knows that I'm not much of a sitcom fan. I don't believe I've watched a situation comedy with any regularity since The Cosby Show was in its heyday. Even then, I didn't watch often.

There is, however, one sitcom that retains a cherished corner in my recollection, more than 25 years after it last aired. Even then, the fond memories are due more to the show's theme song — which still echoes in my cranium a quarter-century later — than to the program itself.



The show in question was Open All Night, a short-lived laffer from the early 1980s. As one might surmise from the title, Open All Night took place in a 24-hour convenience market (called "the 364 Store" because it was open every day except Christmas).

George Dzundza — later Detective Max Greevey in the debut season of Law & Order — starred as hapless Gordon Feester, the cranky yet lovable shlub who managed the store. Indie film goddess Susan Tyrrell played Gordon's airhead wife Gretchen, while talented character actor Sam Whipple (who passed away from cancer a few years ago, at the too-young age of 41) often stole the show with dry humor as Gretchen's slacker son Terry. Ex-NFL star Bubba Smith — then a hot TV property thanks to a popular series of Miller Lite beer commercials that paired him with Dick Butkus — played Robin, Gordon's assistant manager who ran the graveyard shift.

Open All Night derived most of its comedy from the motley assortment of folks who wandered into the 264 Store during the wee hours. If you've ever found yourself in a 7-11 after the local taverns lock down, you'll get the idea. David Letterman (as himself) dropped by during one memorable episode, to promote his new late night talk show. Even Cassandra Peterson — today admired by millions of horny fanboys as horror film hostess Elvira — showed up, albeit without sporting either her vampire queen drag or her bountiful cleavage. Where better for the future Mistress of the Dark to make a guest appearance than on a show called Open All Night?

As I recall, the show started off well with several hilarious early episodes, then began to peter out toward the end of its only season. But then, as I noted previously, there was that theme song. (Remember theme songs? They used to be my favorite feature of television. When I was a kid, I used to tape theme music straight from the TV speakers with my little reel-to-reel recorder, then splice in clips of myself in Casey Kasem mode introducing each selection.)

Many series back in the day attempted to summarize the gist of the show in the opening montage. None accomplished the feat as completely or as cleverly as Open All Night, which combined a catchy, piano-driven 1940s-style vocal hook with lyrics that burrowed into the human consciousness like deer ticks, never to be dislodged. Imagine the Andrews Sisters mated with Shel Silverstein, after guzzling a tankful of espresso.

Click the image below, and you can sing along yourself:



This is the story of Gordon Feester
Born in Ohio the day before Easter
Had a normal childhood, did okay in school
Graduated from Columbus High in 1962
Now he's open all night, open all night

Went away to college but he didn't do that good
So the Army drafted him and he got sent to Fort Hood
Served a two-year hitch, never went overseas
Spent a year peeling potatoes and a year copping Z's
Now he's open all night, open all night

Then old Gordon sort of drifted this way and that
At times he had some money, other times he was flat
He always seemed to manage, though he never saved a cent
Sure, it was a struggle, but he always paid the rent
Now he's open all night (yeah!), open all night

That takes us up to 1974
And now old Gordon runs a grocery store
With a wife named Gretchen who hangs around the house
And her son named Terry by a previous spouse
Gordon sits behind the counter, in hock up to his nose
In a dither, in a pickle, in a store that's never closed
And he's open all night, open all night...
Open all night...
Open all night...
Open all night...
Open all night...


I wonder what George Dzundza's up to these days. Or nights, as the case may be.

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Monday, February 26, 2007

Departed: All hope of Oscar excitement

Was that the most boring Academy Awards telecast in history, or what?

I almost need a major jolt of cat poop coffee to wake up after that snoozefest. Great gravy, McGee. I had thought Oscar couldn't get any more dull than last year's low-energy ceremony, but last night's show was like mainlining Lunesta.

To the commentary, quickly, while we're all still reasonably coherent:
  • Ellen DeGeneres once again solidified her reputation in my mind as the least funny big-name comedian I've ever seen. Ellen seems like a charming person, and I'll bet she'd be a delightful best friend and boon companion, but she doesn't make me laugh. A show as big as the Academy Awards needs a huge, room-filling personality at its center. That's why Bob Hope and Johnny Carson were so terrific with the hosting duties. Next year, bring back Whoopi.

  • Oh, and Ellen? Lose the red velour tuxedo. You were just a bow tie away from a barbershop quartet in that getup.

  • Did Jack Nicholson and Britney Spears visit the same hairdresser?

  • I thought the opening film by Errol Morris was fun, but it sure could have used captions so that viewers could identify the participants without a scorecard.

  • What the heck was that huge red bow doing on Nicole Kidman's shoulder? Did she not learn from Charlize Theron's similarly ridiculous outfit last year?

  • When the annual "Dead People" montage concluded, my parting thought was, I'll bet the Academy is darn glad they didn't wait another year to give Robert Altman the Lifetime Achievement Award.

  • That, and — man, Jodie Foster looked smokin' awesome introducing that segment. She and her stunning blue gown deserved a cheerier slot in the program.

  • Speaking of Lifetime Achievement Awards — for pity's sake, people, if you're going to give (a well-deserved) one to Ennio Morricone, and you know that the man doesn't speak much English, hire a presentable interpreter. Don't embarrass him, or a two-time Best Director honoree, by leaving them both to flounder onstage, fishing for the grace note.

  • Good for Martin Scorsese, finally winning a Best Director Oscar. Scorsese is a masterful filmmaker who just happens to make movies that aren't generally to my taste. But as with a great opera singer, I can appreciate the artistry even if I'm not partial to the vehicle. Go back in time 25 years: Who then would have guessed that a quarter-century later, Clint Eastwood would own two Best Director Oscars to Scorsese's one?

  • For that matter, who'd have guessed that Scorsese's editor, Thelma Schoonmaker (who won her first for Raging Bull, Scorsese's breakthrough film), would own three Oscars to his one?

  • Although seeing Eddie Murphy — he of Velvet Jones, Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood, and "Buh-Weet" — win an Academy Award would have been a hoot of the first water, I was glad that Alan Arkin got one while he's still around to enjoy it. Thirty-seven years between nominations is a painfully long time.

  • Forest Whitaker should win something at every awards show, if only because his acceptance speeches this season always perfectly bridged the gap between thoroughly prepared and genuinely heartfelt. Nice guys should finish first more often.

  • Michael Arndt, the guy who wrote the screenplay for Little Miss Sunshine, gave a nice acceptance speech, too. Hopefully, that wasn't the only award-worthy script he had in him. Was he really Matthew Broderick's personal assistant?

  • Props to Jennifer Hudson for having the presence of mind not to thrust her Oscar at the camera and scream, "Suck THIS, Simon Cowell!"

  • Props also to Al Gore, for having the presence of mind not to snatch the Best Feature Documentary Oscar from producer Davis Guggenheim's hands and run off with it. You know, the way George W. did with Al's 2000 presidential election.

  • J-Hud has the pipes, and Beyoncé the publicity, but if you ask me, the hottest of the Dreamgirls is Anika Noni Rose. (Memo to J-Hud: Either get a red bra that matches the gown, or make 100% sure the off-white one you choose doesn't creep into your décolletage, girlfriend.)

  • I haven't yet seen Happy Feet, the winner for Best Animated Feature, but it's tough to imagine that it could be a better movie than the amazing Monster House.

  • Those little interludes where the shadow mimes formed themselves into visual references to the year's major films were weird, but at least they only lasted a few seconds each.

  • I can't help wondering how Helen Mirren's referring to the Queen as "Elizabeth Windsor" went over at Buckingham Palace.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

American Idol '07: It's Ladies' Night, and the feeling's right

What a difference a night makes.



Tuesday on American Idol, we were treated to a veritable parade of the overmatched and talent-deficient, when the top 12 male contestants took the stage. Wednesday, the top 12 female hopefuls took that stage back, and collectively blew the roof off the sucker.

My faith in humanity is restored.

Let's meet the ladies, in performance order:
  • Stephanie Edwards. It's never a gift to be first on stage in this sort of thing, but Stephanie came out with sixguns blazing. She'll get branded by some as another diva-style singer — and this year's class is filled with those — but in fact she has a rich, flexible voice that can do a good deal more than just belt. Her voice has personality, which is a difficult quality to achieve. She set the bar high.

  • Amy Krebs. And then Amy came out, and yanked that bar back down to earth. She's everything Stephanie isn't — bland, colorless, and a relentlessly average singer. Amy sang "I Can't Make You Love Me," and seemed determined to prove the lyrics accurate. She will, however, make a speedy exit.

  • Leslie Hunt. Leslie was okay, but just okay. She struggled to hold her own against a song ("You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman") requiring a much more dynamic voice than she possesses. On top of that, her awkward, ungainly stage presence — she moves like a marionette — detracted from what little excitement her vocals produced. Seems like a nice kid, but in over her head.

  • Sabrina Sloan. She's a spitfire, this Sabrina, plus she can really sing. She knows how to handle the mic and work the stage. She definitely came to perform, and did it with flair. She's also the prettiest of this year's contestant class, which has nothing to do with singing, but certainly doesn't hurt.

  • Antonella Barba. Another contestant who picked a bigger song than she was able to sing effectively. She wasn't horrific, but she wasn't memorable either. There's also something undefinably irritating about her stage manner. Hopefully, she won't be around long enough for me to figure out what it is.

  • Jordin Sparks. Jordin's been a favorite in our house since she appeared on America's Most Talented Kids a few years ago. Her father is former NFL star Philippi Sparks, and Jordin has inherited her dad's imposing physique. She started a bit rough and low in her range, but holy cats, did she ever bring it home at the end. Jordin probably has as much natural talent as anyone in the field, and is a sweetheart to boot, but at 17, she's awfully young.

  • Nicole Tranquillo. What was that? Nicole's all attitude and spastic facial mannerisms, without much polish to back it up. She sings with a strident, choppy delivery, and makes faces as though she's either angry or constipated or both. I think there's a voice in there somewhere, but all of the naked aggression makes it hard to tell.

  • Haley Scarnato. Two words: Pageant girl. Haley performs with the obvious, mechanical stagecraft of someone who's been overpraised and overcoached. She's excessively theatrical, and sings with that stereotypical Broadway-style delivery that high school talent shows are riddled with. Also, kid, if you're going to sing a Jim Steinman power ballad, you'd better have a voice like Meat Loaf. And you don't.

  • Melinda Doolittle. Perhaps the most surprising competitor in this Idol class, Melinda's a soft-spoken, self-deprecating little woman with powerhouse pipes behind that mousy exterior. She'll go as far in this field as her personality will allow.

  • Alaina Alexander. Ugh. Just... ugh. Doesn't belong here. Doesn't belong singing, anywhere. Enough said.

  • Gina Glocksen. Gina is this year's edition of Season 3's Amy Adams — the quirky girl with the oddly colored hair and tons of brass. Whereas Amy seemed fun and endearing, however, Gina appears arrogant and a bit nasty. I like her voice (despite the ten-cents-flat climax note) and her stage presence, and I give her credit for choosing a song no one would have expected from her ("All By Myself"). But lose the 'tude, Miss Thing.

  • Lakisha Jones. If Gina is the new Amy Adams, Lakisha is the new Mandisa, with a dollop of Fantasia tossed in for good measure. She's got a titanic voice and knows how to use it. If volume alone counts for anything, she'll hold her own with anyone here. She brought passion and thunder to the stage in a wheelbarrow. It'll be interesting to see her sing something requiring more nuance and less bluster.
Early prediction: This year's American Idol will be female. All six of the women who make the Top 12 will be better than even the best of their male counterparts. I'd say the primary challenge for the ladies could be finding a distinction among several essentially similar talents. Someone who's a bit different from the pack could run away with it all.

Some tough calls here, but I think the top six from the distaff side will include, alphabetically:
  • Gina.
  • Jordin.
  • Lakisha.
  • Melinda.
  • Sabrina.
  • Stephanie.
We'll check back in a few weeks to see how I fared.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

American Idol '07: Bring on the boys

Or don't, because with a couple of exceptions, they're not very good.

But I'll get to that.



It's another season of American Idol, and that means more Randy ("Yo, dawg, it was pitchy, but you worked it out"), more Paula ("Gotta have a bottle of J.D. if you wanna be with me"), more Simon ("That was as dreadful as the hair on my concave chest"), and more Seacrest ("My parents had three children — one boy, one girl, one metro").

Mostly, though, it means more fodder for the 19Entertainment cannon. And from the looks of the top 12 male contestants, that cannon's going to get fired early and often. This could well be the weakest field in Idol history — no Taylor Hicks or Ruben Studdard in this crew, but an awful lot of Justin Guarini wannabes.

Let's run 'em down anyway, just for kicks and giggles. In order of appearance on last night's funfest:
  • Rudy Cardenas. Rudy's one of two Idol hopefuls whom I've actually seen perform live. He sings in a terrific vocal group called M-Pact. Unfortunately for Rudy, that means I know he can do better than the unremarkable cover of "Free Ride" he served up last night. I liked his performance energy, but there wasn't much fire in the vocal delivery.

  • Brandon Rogers. Based on what we've seen of him prior to last night, I think Brandon is one of the top two or three male contenders, not that that's saying much in this group. Last night, though, he chose a song not well suited to his voice, and came in with a so-so performance.

  • Sundance Head. Love the name. The singer? Not so much. I was stunned when Sundance survived Hollywood Week; I'll be even more stunned if he's not one of the first two guys eliminated, in the wake of his oddly Meat Loafesque cover of "Nights in White Satin." I can't stand singers who deliver a song as though they've never taken the time to decipher the lyrics.

  • Paul Kim. Idol loves a contestant with a shtick. Paul's is that he always performs in his bare feet. He needs some kind of hook, though, because his vocals are seriously lacking. Paul's tepid rendition of "Careless Whisper" featured weak singing at both the upper and lower ends of his tessitura. His falsetto is worse than mine, and mine stinks.

  • Chris Richardson. Well, he's no Chris Daughtry. Heck, he's not even a Chris Sligh, whom we'll discuss momentarily. Mostly, he's a good-looking kid with boy-band style and a whiny, nasal voice that wore out its welcome quickly. He'll probably stick around a while, though, because teenage girls will dig him. And they vote.

  • Nick Pedro. Seriously in need of a last name, and voice lessons. Aside from his dull onstage demeanor, he struck far too many flat notes with his breathy, atonal delivery. Nick ought to take up a new hobby, and the sooner the better.

  • Blake Lewis. The other contestant I've seen before — he used to sing in an a cappella group called Kickshaw, which also spawned the career of Dan Schumacher of The Bobs. Blake's a terrific vocal percussionist, and as he proved last night, a pretty decent singer as well. I liked both his performance energy and the resonant tone of his voice. He's a keeper, even if his hairdo makes him look like a soft-serve cone from Dairy Queen.

  • Sanjaya Malakar. This kid gets my "Why is he here?" vote this year. He can't sing a lick, his stage presence is dishwater-dull, and his '70s Teen Beat mop of hair gives me Leif Garrett flashbacks. I'm sure he's a great kid, but he needs to start prepping for another career. And a haircut.

  • Chris Sligh. Idol's tradition of having one contestant each season who looks like a clerk at a comic book shop continues. (I love the staff at my local comic book shop, by the way. But you know what I mean.) This year's edition of Elliott Yamin is Chris Sligh, a Jack Osbourne lookalike who actually appears to have some serious talent. He's already demonstrated some versatility — he auditioned with Seal's ballad "Kiss From a Rose," then hit the stage last night with an uptempo rocker.

  • Jared Cotter. A pleasant-looking young man, and probably the most forgettable vocalist among the guys. Decent enough voice — although he doesn't use it to its fullest potential — but there's nothing distinctive enough about Jared to make either him fan-worthy or sympathetic. Will likely survive the first cut, but not much further unless he busts out some big-league skills soon.

  • AJ Tabaldo. Every now and again on each Idol season, Simon will describe a contestant's performance as "bad karaoke." He didn't say that about AJ's first shot, so I will. A weak, unimpressive singer who's trying way too hard, and is way over his head in this competition.

  • Phil Stacey. Phil got off to an uncertain start, but by the end of the song, he owned it. He's obviously better suited to rock anthems than sensitive ballads, but when it comes together for him, he can bring it. Plus, the guy missed the birth of his baby to audition for Idol — you've got to give it to him for commitment.
No real standouts here, and a sort of general thread of mediocrity throughout. But I've gotta select six of these dudes to move on to the Top 12, so here are the likely suspects, alphabetically:
  • Blake.
  • Brandon.
  • Chris Richardson.
  • Chris Sligh.
  • Phil.
  • Rudy.
Tomorrow night, the ladies. Man, I hope it gets better from here.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

It's Fat Tuesday, and I'm a bit fluffy myself

As I sit here sipping my Starbucks Kenya from my Mickey Mouse coffee mug ("It's really swell!"), I'm thinking.

You know what happens when I do that.

Get on your bikes and ride: The Tour of California bicycle race kicked off here yesterday. The first stage concluded with a 90-bike pileup in downtown Santa Rosa. At our house, we're rooting for local hero Levi Leipheimer, who's currently wearing the yellow jersey — which means that he's either leading the race, or knows where the urinals are located.



We figure Levi deserves a little applause, mostly to make up for what his parents did to his psyche by naming him Levi Leipheimer.

You really can find IT on eBay: For years, I've been hunting for a CD by an obscure '90s a cappella cover band from Washington, DC called Brock and the Rockets. The Rockets — four men, four women — performed at the very first Harmony Sweepstakes finals KJ and I attended, in 1993. In the years since, I've worn out my cassette tape of their sole album, entitled Out to Launch.



A couple of weeks ago, by sheer serendipity, I discovered a copy of the CD on eBay for just $3.99. I'm one happy Solid Rocket Booster. You haven't lived until you've heard Catherine Boland Hackett's hilarious rendition of Julie Brown's "I Like 'Em Big and Stupid."

Life begins on Opening Day: The Giants undergo their first full-squad workouts of spring training today. The wonderful thing about the first day of spring training is that every team is undefeated, every pitching staff looks like the second coming of Cy Young, every batting lineup looks like Murderers' Row, and every infield looks like Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance. Hope springs eternal in the spring.



Will this be the year Bonds breaks Aaron's record, if he's ever going to? Will Zito flourish in the National League? Will Durham prove he deserved the new contract? Anything seems possible. I loves me some Giants.

Our long national Monday nightmare is over: NBC has finally pulled the plug on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Starting next week, the oddly titled drama The Black Donnellys (odd because, from what I can tell from the previews, none of the characters are black; but then, if they were, the show would probably be called The African American Donnellys) slips into Studio 60's timeslot, by all accounts permanently.



As one of the few hardy souls who stuck it out with Aaron Sorkin and company until the end, allow me to offer three quick insights about what went wrong here:
  1. Studio 60 was a show about comedy writers and comedians, but almost no one in the cast was a comedy writer or comedian. The scripts never gave the one real-life comic in the crew (D.L. Hughley) anything funny to say or do. The actor playing the show's comedy star (Sarah Paulson) was the least funny person in the cast. Why didn't Sorkin stock the crew with genuinely funny people?

  2. The show wasted tons of airtime on relationship stories that lacked chemistry. The romance between the characters played by Paulson and Matthew Perry was doomed from the start — you never believed those two people felt anything for each other that was hotter than day-old oatmeal. The late-blooming love story between Bradley Whitford's producer and Amanda Peet's network executive seemed sillier and creepier every week. The one truly intriguing combination — Nathan Corddry's geeky comic and Lucy Davis's shy English writer — never got off the ground.

  3. The writing, to put it politely, sucked. I can't remember a show that loved to pontificate as much as Studio 60 — unless it was Sorkin's previous effort, The West Wing. There, at least, the White House setting gave the pontificating some gravitas. TV writers and comedians pontificating just came off as gratuitous and self-important.
Mrs. Butterworth, I think I love you: Today is National Pancake Day, which means that you can stop in at your friendly neighborhood International House of Pancakes before 10 p.m. today, and scarf down a free stack of three buttermilk pancakes. In exchange, the IHOP folks ask that you consider making a donation to the Children's Miracle Network, or another charity of your choice. So eat up, flapjack lovers.



(Not that I'm quibbling or anything, but I hardly believe that serving French toast, English muffins, and Belgian waffles qualifies a restaurant as "International." But maybe that's just me. I definitely would not bring up this point with your waitress, should you decide to go for the free stack.)

Happy Mardi Gras! Remember: For some of us, every Tuesday is Fat Tuesday.

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Friday, February 09, 2007

All our hopes are pinned upon you

Sad news this week for us Wonder Woman fanatics: Joss Whedon — creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Fireflyannounced that he is no longer attached to write and direct the proposed feature film about our favorite Amazon.

Apparently the bone of contention between Whedon and Time-Warner (which owns DC Comics and its pantheon of superheroes, including the Superman and Batman franchises) was Warner's insistence that the film be a light-hearted period piece set in the World War II era — like the first two seasons of the Wonder Woman TV series from the '70s — whereas Joss envisioned a modernized, iconic representation.

In announcing his departure from the Wonder Woman movie project, Whedon confirmed what many of us had heard via the comics industry rumor mill: He had intended to cast Canadian actress Cobie Smulders (of How I Met Your Mother fame) in the title role.



(You'll just have to envision Ms. Smulders in a golden-eagle bustier and star-spangled briefs, unless you have mad Photoshop skills.)

Alas, what might have been. But we can dream, can't we?

Since we're all now thinking of Wonder Woman — which, given that it's Comic Art Friday, is a fine subject for consideration — let's eyeball a few images from our Temple of Diana.

In this powerful drawing by Brazilian pinup specialist Alex Miranda, the Amazing Amazon goes premedieval on the pillars of an ancient temple.



Here, Miranda provides a more contemplative take on our heroine. Nice detail work by the artist in this scenario.



The next two images both flow from the pencil of artist Scott Jones, who works his magic under the nom de plume Shade. A couple of years back, I commissioned Scott to create a Wonder Woman image, using a couple of my favorite costume modifications — a skirt (Diana has never actually worn a skirted uniform in the comics; the skirt, however, recalls the bloomers that formed the lower half of her original outfit, back in the early 1940s) and shoes that lace up the calf (worn by Diana in the comics throughout the 1950s).



The drawing above was Scott's first attempt at this assignment. I thought the piece turned out just fine, but for whatever reason, Scott was dissatisfied with the results and offered to redraw it. His second attack produced the beauty you see below.



Now here's the exercise: Stare at each of today's images one by one. Then, quickly close your eyes and try to envision that same scene, only with Cobie Smulders in it.

I know it's a poor substitute, but it's the best I can offer.

And that, my fellow Themyscirans, is your Comic Art Friday.

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Monday, February 05, 2007

The Swan Tunes In: Super Bowl ads

For those of us mortals who look forward to the Super Bowl more eagerly for the commercials than for the game, Super Bowl Extra-Large-Plus-One came something of a cropper. This wasn't exactly a stellar year for the ad agencies, who annually bring out the big guns for the Big Game. I'd forgotten most of the spots already by the time I sat down to compose this post. Lucky for you, I took notes.

As an advertising copywriter, I tend to view the splashier commercials with a gimlet eye. A commercial should have as its primary aim two goals: (1) imbedding the sponsor's brand inescapably in the mind of the viewer, and (2) fostering an intense desire to purchase the sponsor's product or service. An ad that accomplishes either goal has earned its money. One that does both is golden.

Sad to say, most of the Super Bowl spots focus on a third objective: entertainment. The problem is that entertainment is the job of programming -- in this case, the football game. If all an ad does is entertain the audience, without selling either the brand or the product or both, it might as well be a show, and not an ad. Few things are a more pointless waste of money and creativity than a clever commercial that everyone in America talks about, but no one can recall who the advertiser was or what product they were selling. You might as well set three million dollars (production cost plus airtime) on fire.

So let's examine a random sampling of Super Bowl commercials using the SwanShadow Scale of Advertising Effectiveness (a maximum of ten tailfeathers possible):

Pizza Hut: Jessica Simpson bolts the red carpet for some Cheesy Bites.
I have no love for Jessica Simpson — an unattractive, talent-free bimbo, in my not-so-humble estimation — nor for Pizza Hut, which serves the nastiest pizza of any of the major chains. This ad, however, does a good job of reinforcing the brand, and making the product seem appealing. Seven tailfeathers.

Blockbuster: The Blockbuster bunny and gerbil attempt to order videos using a mouse. The furry kind.
One of the more memorable and effective spots of the day. The mouse gag makes a strong mental connection with the online service. More importantly, the spot breaks away from the humor to solidify the sales pitch, rather than trying to make the gimmick do all the heavy lifting. Nine tailfeathers.

Doritos: A guy and girl meet disastrously cute.
Clever idea — this was an amateur submission generated by a "make your own Doritos ad" contest. For me, though, as clever as the piece is, its value is ruined by all of the violent misfortune. Unless I'm selling insurance or auto body repairs, I don't want people associating my product with car crashes. Six tailfeathers.

Sierra Mist: When you can seize the soft drink from my hand, Grasshopper, you will be ready to leave. Most of the blogosphere is raving about the other Sierra Mist spot starring comedians Michael Ian Black and Jim Gaffigan, in which Black's middle manager fires Gaffigan's bizarrely coiffured employee. For me, that spot was more about the sight gags than the soda. This one, with Black playing a martial arts teacher and Gaffigan his hyperaggressive student, works better at selling the product, while still bringing the funny. Eight tailfeathers. (The "hair" ad only gets six.)

Snickers: Two macho men share an inadvertent kiss over a Snickers bar. This was probably the funniest ad of the day. It did not, however, make me want to eat a Snickers bar. Instead, it made me want to hurl. Not because of the implicit homoeroticism (borrowing heavily from a famous bit in the John Hughes film Planes, Trains and Automobiles), but because the idea of having food in my mouth that has been in someone else's (I don't care whose) turns my stomach. I can't imagine anyone viewing this ad and thinking, "I sure would like a Snickers right about now." Three tailfeathers.

Bud Light: Carlos Mencia turns an ESL class into a beer commercial.
Alcohol ads are always a valuable test for me, since I don't drink. This spot makes effective use of humor — and ethnic humor at that; tricky in any venue — in reinforcing the Bud Light brand. There's a reason why Anheuser-Busch, which I'm told by my beer-drinking associates makes a mediocre product at best, sells so much beer: Their ads consistently underscore their brand identity, to the degree that even a teetotaler such as myself knows who they are. (I always wonder: If Budweiser is the King of Beers, is Bud Light the Queen of Beers?) Eight feathers. (Another Bud Light spot starring Mencia lost the branding message in the punch line. Only four tailfeathers for that one.)

CareerBuilder.com: Jungle lemmings.
Who thought this would be a good idea? A noisy, chaotic commercial featuring office workers in a jungle environment being attacked by unseen marauders, ending with the entire cast (or CGI versions of same) running off a gigantic cliff. I'm not sure from watching this ad what the product is, or what I'm supposed to think about it — other than that it has something to do with blowdarts and mass suicide. Yuck. One tailfeather... but just barely.

Emerald Nuts: Robert Goulet messes with your stuff.
Easily the most peculiar ad of Super Bowl Sunday — although less inflammatory than the Snickers spot — this one is just plain freaky. It didn't make me want to buy nuts, only to think that the creatives at Emerald's agency of record are nuts. Two tailfeathers, for sheer audacity.

Nationwide Insurance: "Federline! Fries!"
We rip on K-Fed quite frequently here at SSTOL, but this commercial is actually well done. I would have made the connection between the humorous body of the ad and the sales pitch more cohesive, but all in all, this was worth the money Nationwide spent on it, for the pop culture buzz alone. Seven tailfeathers — would have been eight, but KJ used to work for Nationwide, and she's still a mite peeved.

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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Dude, your grandma's hot

Lovefilm.com — which, for the benefit of our North American readers, is the European equivalent of Netflix — polled its site visitors to determine the sexiest screen stars over the age of 50.

In a mild upset, Helen Mirren (age 61) edged perennial favorite Sophia Loren (72) and runners-up Meryl Streep (a relatively fresh 57), Judi Dench (72), and Diane Keaton (61) in the distaff race. Among male stars, Jack Nicholson (69) topped his fellow sagging stallions Sean Connery (76), Robert Redford (70), Clint Eastwood (76), and Danny Glover (a mere pup at 60).



What I find interesting about the ladies on this list — you knew I'd focus there, because that's how I roll — is that with the possible exception of screen siren Loren, all of these women have always been more widely recognized for their acting talents than their pulchritude. For example, Meryl Streep may well be the greatest American actress in cinema history, but she wasn't considered a sex goddess even in her younger days. (Anyone who ever saw Streep opposite Robert De Niro in Falling in Love — perhaps one of the worst romances in movie history — knows why.) The same could be said of Judi Dench on the other side of the pond.

Had I voted in this poll, Annette O'Toole (Superman's girlfriend-turned-mom is 54, in case you were curious) would have been at the top of my ballot. That Michael McKean is one lucky fellow.



Oh, by the way...

Annette asked me to remind you that today is National Gorilla Suit Day.



A little hot monkey love would not be inappropriate. Especially with someone over 50.

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Monday, January 29, 2007

Not to be confused with the Perky Awards

I always chuckle — for two reasons — when the Screen Actors Guild Awards are handed out each year.

Reason One: The SAG Award is formally known as the "Actor." This is, without contest, the least imaginative award title in an industry that prides itself on cleverness and invention. Hmm... an award given to actors, by actors, for acting. What the heck — let's just call it the Actor, and be done with it.

Reason Two: The SAG Awards are pretty much the only occasion when you can use the word "sag" and have women take it as a compliment. In fact, given the universal eschewing of brassieres by the female attendees, they might as well call the awards the Saggies. Not only would the title fit, but it would look as though someone involved had a sense of humor.

Right, Marg Helgenberger?



What makes the Saggies — I thought of it, I might as well put it to good use — interesting to watch is the fact that, because all of the awards are given to actors, we only have to see the people onstage whom we tune in to watch. Let's fact it — no one outside of the winners' immediate families enjoys seeing some writer, producer, or composer pick up a statuette at the Academy Awards. It's the actors — of both male and female varieties, dressed to the nines — we want to check out. The SAG Awards give us all of the meat with none of the filler, so to speak.

The SAG Awards also are the only Hollywood honors that acknowledge the collective talents of an entire ensemble of actors. To win Best Picture at the Oscars, a film has to hit on all cylinders — great cast, great script, great direction. At the Saggies, since only the acting counts, a film or TV show can be recognized for the overall excellence of its cast, even if the other facets of the production aren't up to the same lofty standard. (Hence the Saggie for the actors in Little Miss Sunshine, a picture that no one in his or her right mind believes will win the biggest Oscar prize.) It's a concept I'm surprised that neither the Oscars, nor the Emmys, nor the Golden Globes have embraced.

So who won the individual Saggies, you ask? All of the frontrunners for the Academy's film acting categories picked up hardware: Helen Mirren, Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson, and Eddie Murphy. Could this actually be the year that three of the four top acting Oscars go to African American performers?

In the television categories, the favorite suspects — House's Hugh Laurie, Ugly Betty's America Ferrera, and 30 Rock's Alec Baldwin — bagged three of the four Actors. The one wild card was Chandra Wilson of Grey's Anatomy, who seemed as stunned as anyone else in the room when her name was called for Best Female Actor in a Drama Series.

The Lifetime Achievement Actor (also known as the "Aren't You Dead Yet?" Award) went to Julie Andrews — who, thankfully, neither removed her top (anyone remember S.O.B.?) nor attempted to sing.

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Thinking Thursday

It's a nippy January Thursday, and as is often the case, I stand appalled by the activities of my fellow humans...
  • The Ford Motor Company reported today that they lost $12.7 billion — that's billion with a "b" — last year. How does that happen? How do you lose $12.7 billion? There are entire countries that don't have access to that level of cash flow.

    Ford says that about $9.9 billion of the loss can be attributed to its newly established company-wide cost-cutting program. Guys, I'm no Milton Friedman here, but I don't think that program is working.

  • Responding to questions about the White House's insistence on pursuing its intended troop increase in Iraq in the face of a Senate resolution against the idea, Vice President Dick Cheney said:
    The fact is, we can complete the task in Iraq. We're going to do it.
    What's the weather like on your planet, Dick?

  • Scandal is brewing Down Under, where the city council of Melbourne hired private investigators to gather evidence against illegal brothels by having sexual relations with the masseuses at government expense. Said one detective:
    The girl is naked. The investigator is naked. You receive an oil massage and, at the end of it, you receive hand relief and that's it.
    Sounds like they take the term "private investigator" literally down in Kangaroo Country.

  • Caucasian students at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas displayed the redness of their collective necks by throwing an MLK Day party featuring fried chicken and malt liquor, Afro wigs, and costumes imitating black rappers and Aunt Jemima. (You can check out the photo array over at The Smoking Gun.)

    Perhaps someone thought MLK meant Mindless Losers for the Klan instead of Martin Luther King.

  • At the Oakland Raiders' press conference introducing new head coach Lane Kiffin, owner Al Davis took offense when a reporter from the San Jose Mercury News referred to the Raiders as "a black hole for coaches." Darth Davis raged:
    This isn't a black hole for coaches. It's a great opportunity for coaches. We know how to win here.
    Hey, Al: Your team was 2-14 in the NFL season just concluded. If the Raiders know how to win, you're keeping that knowledge more secret than the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden.

  • Ellen DeGeneres's ex-squeeze Anne Heche is dumping her husband of five years in favor of her Men in Trees costar, James Tupper. I guess Anne's decided to give the old hetero thing one more whirl.

    In apparently unrelated developments, Heather Graham and Bridget Moynihan will play lesbian lovers in the upcoming film Gray Matters, while former Friends costars Courteney Cox and Jennifer Aniston get in a little girl-on-girl action in the March 27 episode of Cox's new series, Dirt. So maybe the old hetero thing just isn't for everyone.

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Brandy, you're a fine girl, but a lousy driver

Brandy — noted pop singer, sitcom star, and David Hasselhoff sidekick — was reportedly involved in a freeway accident last month in which a 38-year-old mother of two was killed.

According to the muckrakers at TMZ.com, Brandy told witnesses at the scene that the crash, in which Brandy's 2007 Land Rover apparently rear-ended the Toyota driven by the deceased victim, was her fault.



Brandy's publicist released this statement today:
Brandy was involved in a car accident December 30, 2006 in Los Angeles, where there was a fatality. She wishes to publicly express her condolences to the family of the deceased. Brandy asks that you respect the privacy of everyone involved at this time.
Reading the subtext:
Brandy hopes the deceased's family doesn't sue her britches off before a financial settlement can be reached.

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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Dunleavy dunleft, and duntaken Murphy with him



White men can't play.

Not all white men, mind you — just Mike Dunleavy and Troy Murphy.

It simply cost Golden State Warriors vice president Chris Mullin — a white man who, in his day, could play with the best of them, as a member of the original Dream Team USA — a couple of ginormous contracts totaling $80 million before he figured this out.

Now, at long last, Mullin has sent Dunleavy and Murphy packing for Indiana, along with Ike Diogu and Keith McLeod. In exchange, the Warriors get one legitimate player, Al Harrington; one legitimate pain in the gluteus maximii, Stephen Jackson; one Lithuanian with potential, Sarunas Jasikevicius (because you can never have too many guys with names like Sarunas Jasikevicius on your team); and a roster-phantom named Josh Powell.



The Warriors have been after Harrington for a while, and should prove lucky to get him. He can fill it up, yank down boards, and even play defense — a concept completely alien to Mike Dunleavy. In fact, had the Warriors been able to unload Murphy and Dunleavy for Harrington straight up, it still would have been a good deal. Add Jackson, who'll contribute if he can stay out of courtrooms and strip clubs, and Jasikevicius — Warriors coach Don Nelson has had success grooming Lithuanian players before, going all the way back to the original Sarunas, former Warrior Marchiulionis.

Incidentally, Al Harrington, the basketball player, is no relation to Al Harrington, the Samoan American actor and one-time high school football star who played detective Ben Kokua, one of Steve "Book 'em, Danno" McGarrett's henchmen, on the long-running police drama Hawaii Five-O.



Just in case anyone was confused.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Do you take one Golden Globe, or two?

Just for the record: My globes are not golden — they're frozen.

It's 24 degrees Fahrenheit this morning, here in what's supposed to be balmy northern California. Yes, I realize that those of you in the Midwest who have icicles dangling from your noses are thinking that 24 degrees sounds like a vacation in Jamaica. But for us warm-climate pantywaists, this is wicked cold.

Speaking of 24: Is there a compelling reason why the second half of the four-hour season premiere always gets scheduled opposite the Golden Globe Awards? Someone in Hollywood hates me. (Not you, Trebek. We have an understanding.)



At any rate, those funloving folks at the Hollywood Foreign Press Association handed out their annual Golden Globes last night. Among the highlights of the mutual admiration society banquet:
  • The easiest win of the night had to be Forest Whitaker's triumph for Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Drama. When two of the other nominees in an acting category are Leonardo DiCaprio (for both Blood Diamond and The Departed), the third is Peter O'Toole in a movie no one heard of, much less saw, and the fourth is Will Smith — an underrated actor, but no Forest Whitaker — heck, I could have won if I'd made a movie last year.

  • From the What Were They Thinking? Department: Sacha Baron Cohen winning Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Comedy for Borat. I'm guessing it was because Cohen was essentially playing a member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

  • Is it just my imagination, or does Renée Zellweger always look as though she smells something nasty?



  • I know they've both won practically everything it's possible for an actress to win, but it still felt good to see Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren pull down the Best Actress awards for film comedy and drama, respectively. Nice to see that someone recognizes that talented women remain worthy of great film roles past the age of 35.

  • So how do you feel if you're the great Jack Nicholson, nominated for Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture, Drama, and you lose to Eddie Murphy? Knowing Jack, you're probably too blotto to care.

  • Speaking of saucy Jack, his daughter Lorraine served the honors as Miss Golden Globe. (Every year, the HFPA selects a second-generation starlet to hand the trophies to the presenters on stage. Such later luminaries as Laura Dern, Joely Fisher, and Melanie Griffith started their careers as Miss Golden Globe.) A word of advice to young Ms. Nicholson: No matter what Dad's ex-girlfriend Lara Flynn Boyle tells you, hon, a cheeseburger now and again ain't gonna kill you.

  • Congratulations to former American Idol also-ran Jennifer Hudson, who netted what will surely be the first of multiple awards for her performance in Dreamgirls. Take that, Simon Cowell!

  • Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima won as Best Foreign Language Film. Later, California Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger hobbled out on crutches to display his award-winning form as Best Foreign Language Politician.

  • Warren Beatty received the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award. Mr. Shampoo gave a ludicrous, rambling acceptance speech — I think he'd been chugging cocktails with Paula Abdul before the show — that seemed to last a lifetime, or at least as long as a Cecil B. DeMille spectacular.

  • House's Hugh Laurie capped his memorable acceptance speech from last year with yet another brilliant spiel when he returned for his second Best Actor, TV Drama trophy. They should let Laurie win every year, just to see whether he can keep topping himself. The guy should hire out to coach the other nominees on how to deliver a killer speech.

  • Nice to see both Kyra (One Degree from Kevin Bacon) Sedgwick and America (the Beautiful) Ferrera snag the TV Best Actress awards. Not only because they're talented performers who deserve the accolades, but also because it gave them the opportunity to step out of their plain-Jane TV roles and let the world see how gorgeous they really are. Both Sedgwick and Ferrera seemed genuinely excited and grateful to have won, and I, for one, was happy for them.

  • On the subject of America Ferrera, was I the only person in the audience not surprised that Ugly Betty scored the Best TV Comedy award? Remember who the voters in this venue are — foreign journalists. Ugly Betty is based on a telenovela that's been a huge hit in Latin America. It was probably the most easily relatable show in the category for many members of the HFPA.

  • Three of my favorite current TV series — Heroes, Big Love, and the aforementioned 24 — were nominated in the Best TV Drama category. All lost to the pretentious soap opera claptrap that is Grey's Anatomy. I told you Hollywood hates me.
And now, we present SSTOL's annual Golden Globe Fashion Awards:
  • What's Up With That Dress? Award: It's a tie! Our first honoree is Cameron Diaz, who not only dunked her head in a bucket of Shinola before the event, but also came disguised as either a Swiffer duster or a marine tube worm, I'm not sure which.



    Not to be outdone, nominee Rinko Kikuchi (Best Supporting Actress for Babel) appeared in a frock that looked as though she was preparing to stuff an truckload of pink aspirin bottles.



  • What's Up With That Suit? Award: Jeremy Irons, who apparently could not be bothered to change out of his bathrobe and pajamas to pick up his Golden Globe.



  • The "She's Not My Granddaughter, She's My Wife" Award: Media mogul Rupert Murdoch, proving yet again that a fat wallet and Viagra trump youth and good looks any day of the week, and especially on the red carpet. The hand that robs the cradle is the hand that rules the world.



  • Giving New Meaning to the Term "Golden Globes" (also known as the Drew Barrymore Award): We'll let the people decide. Dreamgirls' Beyoncé Knowles?



    Or Heroes' Ali Larter?



    Oh, what the hey — let's make it a two-fer.

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Friday, January 12, 2007

Prowling for Vipers

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to the memory of legendary animator Iwao Takamoto, who passed away this week at age 81.



Like thousands of Americans of Japanese descent, Takamoto spent the World War II years in California's Manzanar internment camp. While at Manzanar, he honed his skills at drawing. After the war, Takamoto landed a job with Disney, where he worked as an animator and design artist on such classic films as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Lady and the Tramp, and One Hundred and One Dalmatians.

Takamoto joined Hanna-Barbera in the early 1960s, where he designed the characters for numerous cartoon series, including Josie and the Pussycats, Wacky Races, and most memorably, Scooby-Doo. He also directed the 1973 animated feature film version of Charlotte's Web.

Mr. Takamoto will be missed, but his work lives on.

Some weeks back, I spent one Comic Art Friday pondering the whereabouts of former Marvel Comics artist M.C. Wyman. I ponder no more. Not only has the elusive Mr. Wyman resurfaced — he recently posted several new sketches for sale on eBay — but he was gracious enough to place his inimitable stamp on my ever-popular Common Elements gallery with a new commissioned artwork. Here, Wyman brings together two characters from Marvel's past: the Prowler and Viper.



The Prowler began his costumed career as a villain, appearing first in one of the most fondly recalled comics from my youth, Amazing Spider-Man #78 (November 1969). The character made a dramatic impression on me because behind the Prowler's mask lived a young black man named Hobie Brown. At that time, African Americans were almost as scarce in comic books as at, say, a country and western jamboree. A black villain, in particular, was practically unheard of. The Prowler may have been among the first.



Hobie didn't remain a villain for long. With Spider-Man's encouragement, the Prowler quickly reformed, becoming one of the Wall-Crawler's best friends and staunchest allies — even donning the famous Spider-Man costume as a decoy on at least a couple of occasions. He has resurfaced several times over the years, most notably in a solo Prowler miniseries in 1994, and again most recently in Marvel's current megaevent, Civil War.

I've always retained a soft spot for the Prowler — so much so, in fact, that one of the very first purchases I acquired for my comic art collection was a recreation of that classic cover to Amazing Spider-Man #78. This recreation was drawn in 2004 by comics industry legend Jim Mooney, who inked the original ASM #78 art. (John Romita Sr., Silver Age Spidey artist and later Marvel's art director, drew the original pencils.) You'll notice a few subtle differences from the actual cover, but I think Mooney — who's in his mid-80s and still drawing up a storm — did a bang-up job of revisiting this landmark piece of Marvel history.



I was thrilled when MC Wyman agreed to depict the Prowler in my latest Common Elements commission. Paired with Hobie is the mysterious Viper, a longtime Marvel villainess who first surfaced in the same year as the Prowler, albeit a few months earlier (in Captain America #110, February 1969).

Known at first by the code name Madame Hydra, this empress of evil (whose real name, so far as I'm aware, has never been revealed in the comics) later took the nom de guerre Viper, and so she is called to this day. The character appeared — with a different identity and backstory — in the cheesetastic late '90s TV movie Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., starring David "The Hoff" Hasselhoff in the title role.

The astute among you have already figured this out, I'm sure. But for those coming late to the party, who may be wondering what common element the Prowler and Viper share: Think sports cars. Think Chrysler.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Lily Munster rejoins the undead

I don't know whether the role of a vampire on a television sitcom was the legacy by which actress Yvonne De Carlo would have wanted to be remembered.

But it's the one she's stuck with.



Ms. De Carlo, who portrayed Lily Dracula Munster on that hoary chestnut of '60s TV kitsch, The Munsters, died today at age 84. Fans of big-budget spectacle and/or religious cinema will also recall her as Zipporah, the wife of Charlton Heston's Moses, in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments.

Before the roles in which she gained her dubious immortality, Ms. De Carlo (real name Peggy Middleton, which not only lacks a certain je ne sais quoi, but also would have been easily confused with Penny Singleton, who played Blondie in a series of popular films in the 1930s and '40s; Penny Singleton's real name was Dorothy McNulty, which would not have been easily confused with Yvonne De Carlo) was a contract player at various Hollywood studios, where she tended to be cast in the sort of ethnically ambiguous sex symbol parts that often went to such actresses as Dorothy Lamour and Maria Montez (whose real names were Mary Leta Slaton and María de Santos Silas, respectively... but I digress).

Aside from her two best-known roles, Ms. De Carlo toiled busily in dozens of mostly B-level productions during a lengthy film and television career, ended by age and ill health in the early 1990s.

Truth to tell, I was always a Morticia Addams man anyway.

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