Monday, December 31, 2007

Terry Armour 1961-2007

Can't believe the news of the sudden passing of Chicago Tribune columnist Terry Armour, not just because he was in the prime of life at a seemingly robust 46, but because he always seemed more alive than anyone else.

Terry loved to laugh; he loved people; he loved to live. He exuded a warm, larger-than-life persona in his frequent appearances on radio and TV, but whenever I ran into Terry around town, I found him just as funny and friendly with no camera or microphone in sight.

The last time he and I crossed paths was a Tuesday evening a few months ago at the Lakeshore Theater, where the Upright Citizens Brigade was kicking off a weekly residency. Terry was covering the show for the Trib with a photographer in tow. After some top-tier improv from the UCB, he and I talked comedy at the bar.

We also discussed his late friend and colleague Allan Johnson, who had ably covered comedy for the Tribune before his own untimely passing two years ago. Terry's presence at the Lakeshore was in part a function of Allan's absence, as Terry had helped fill the void in the Trib's comedy coverage after Allan's death. And spookily, sadly, here we are now. I trust that Terry and Allan are reunited somewhere filled with laughter.

I found out about Terry last night over dinner with my family at a bustling downtown restaurant. The place was packed with happy people. The Bears had just won their final home game and Adewale Ogunleye, Tommie Harris, John St. Clair and Israel Idonije were there enjoying a nice meal after work. Alpana Singh was at the next table; I thought I saw Billy Williams walk by. For our part, we had a great time celebrating my mom's birthday. What with the festive atmosphere, family and friends, jocks and celebrities, great food, cocktails and spirited conversation, it felt like a Terry Armour kind of night.

Condolences to Terry's family and many friends. New Year's Eve doesn't seem quite as joyous anymore.

Desperately seeking Lewis Gatlin

Are you Lewis Gatlin, recently of Elizabeth City, North Carolina? Do you know him or how to reach him? If so, please contact me or ask him to do so.

Google, work your magic.

Happy New Year! my friends in Melbourne, Sydney and Cairns. The rest of you, wait a day.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Great stuff

...particularly if you've seen David Blaine's Street Magic.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas.


They're not just for the NBA anymore. Not to be outdone by the New Yorker, this Australia hotel also got into the act.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Nobody's Perfect

That's the title of Anthony Lane's collection of movie reviews, but it also applies to the copy editors at his day-job employer. The New Yorker is generally edited to an immaculate gloss, but nobody's, well, you know.

See the page below from a recent issue. You've got your pleasant David Denby film criticism, your fine caricature work by Chicagoan Tom Bachtell, your bourgeois small-space ads, and your Irvin-font tagline. Pretty much business as usual, except for a small problem with the illustration caption.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Historic meeting

On January 13, 2005, having just been elected to the U.S. Senate in a landslide victory, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) held a Waukegan, Illinois town hall meeting and noticed some guy sporting a casually elegant no-tie look. Immediately recognizing that its quiet power could symbolize his personal brand of anti-politics as usual, Sen. Obama adopted it as his own.

It would soon become his signature look on the campaign trail. Even its imitation by the dangerously unstable Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad would not stop the understated meta-style from setting Sen. Obama apart from his rivals for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.

Had Sen. Obama not insisted on taking this photo to memorialize the momentous occasion, it would have been lost to history. Instead, historians now have precious evidence of the most significant moment in presidential fashion since Jacqueline Kennedy wore a pillbox hat to her husband's 1961 inauguration.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

No New Year's weekend plans?

You might consider checking out Second City's holiday-themed comedy show at the Beverly Arts Center. My Flavorpill preview is here.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Back at it

When I started this blog, lo these many weeks ago, my intention was to keep it an active, living thing. I resolved not to be one of those bloggers who hardly ever post, whose deep thoughts from six weeks ago on Lance Briggs or Chief Justice Roberts pass for their latest entry. People are busy, I reasoned, and if they're—you're—going to pay me the compliment of checking in here, you should be rewarded with something new since your previous visit (unless you visit several times a day; are you listening, Kristen Bell?). I decided I would therefore post at least every few days.

Four days have now passed since my previous post, but I have a pretty good excuse: my home DSL abruptly died six nights ago, consigning me to a 1973 lifestyle on the home front. Of course, I was already in the habit of wearing love beads and a polyester jumpsuit around the house while grooving to Bread LPs and Carpenters eight-tracks, but the lack of Internet access was most inconvenient. Among other things (email, work, writing, newspaper reading, my ongoing flame war with sK8oRdie43), blogging got interrupted.

Anyhoo, the AT&T tech dude just left, leaving behind a teeny new Motorola modem that makes my old SpeedStream look like the oversized, underpowered dinosaur it apparently was. And so I toast my return to connectivity with this entirely frivolous and unnecessary—that is to say, typical—blog post.

To the thousands who have emailed me in outrage, demanding that Ben Bass and Beyond resume its towering mediocrity, its thundering adequacy, reference is made to a moment of slightly lesser consequence to America's cultural life, namely Michael Jordan's March 18, 1995 press release: "I'm back."

Friday, December 14, 2007

Like magic?

I do, "like" being a verb there, so it was a treat to catch the act of professional magician Arthur Trace at a holiday party the other night. He performs around the world, including Malaysia last week, but I crossed his path in the convivial atmosphere of a River West townhouse, where he worked impromptu and wowed the field.

Despite the casual tableside setting, Trace's card and coin skills were flashy and flawless. Even for this relatively informed observer, someone familiar with (and looking for) standard sleights like the double lift and Hindu shuffle, and actively resisting all the steering and misdirection, it was hard to keep up with the master.

Trace was friendly and engaging, a pro's pro who can work a room in all senses of the phrase. He's risen to some esteem in the eyes of his peers, having recently finished third in a worldwide sleight-of-hand competition (I once finished ninth in a local such contest, although there were only eight entrants). He keeps up with his colleague Teller ("Penn and") at the Magic Castle in Hollywood, a performance space and private club for professional magicians.

Trace will premiere a stage show at the Athenaeum Theater in Chicago in spring 2008 before he moves to California. Meanwhile, you can catch him on TV tonight receiving an award from Lance Burton at the recently taped 2007 World Magic Awards. The show airs at 7pm CST on affiliates of My Network TV, including WPWR-Channel 50 in Chicago.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Quote of the week

"Anyways, I'd just like to say, I, I'm not saying I'm the smartest guy in the world — I'm definitely not — but uh, I, I, my articulateness definitely makes me sound more stupider than I am."

—J.D. Harmeyer
The Howard Stern Show

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Monday, December 3, 2007

Note to self

When you go to a party where you talk to comedians like Andy Borowitz, Jeff Garlin, Kumail Nanjiani, and Hannibal Buress, and you have a notebook in your pocket, it would be better for blog purposes to ask them some questions and write down their answers than to do nothing of the kind and blog about how you didn't.

Saturday, December 1, 2007


1. Grape-Nuts: neither grape nor nuts.

2. The Naked Cowboy: neither naked nor cowboy.

3. An egg cream: neither egg nor cream.

4. Mexican-American comedian Carlos Mencia: Neither actually Mexican-American nor actually named Carlos Mencia nor, let's face it, much of a comedian.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Being for the benefit of...

...benefits. I just wrote about two such for Flavorpill, The Second City That Never Sleeps: Letters to Santa and the Old Town School of Folk Music's 50th Anniversary. The two events have much in common, as each is (i) a fundraiser for, inter alia, kids (ii) thrown by a local arts institution (iii) this week (iv) featuring Robbie Fulks, Jeff Tweedy, and Jon Langford.

The Fab Four reference in the above heading reminds me of Frisbie, the Beatlesy power-popsmiths who put a button on their monthlong Schubas residency tonight. They finished with a flourish, cranking out the catchy melodies and gorgeous harmonies from their new record. As good as the originals were, Frisbie's bracing, authoritative cover of "Fool in the Rain" kicked ass generally and mine specifically.

It has been a week of peas in pods. First I met a woman at a party on Friday who was born the same day I was, a cool and unexpected moment. Then my two writeups for Flavorpill appeared, looking kind of exactly alike if you squint. And finally I go see Frisbie tonight, and what with guitarist Liam Davis, opening act Howie Statland, and various members of the crowd including yours truly, it was a de facto North Shore Country Day School reunion.

As Jim Anchower once said: "Wheels within wheels, man."

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Passing thought

...about Blogger, the Google-owned and -provided software that I use to maintain this blog.

Due to my abiding love for you, my literally tens of readers, Ben Bass and Beyond accepts and displays your comments. When there's a total of one comment to a blog entry, Blogger says there's "1 comments."

"One comments?" A $202 billion market cap and none of your hundreds of handpicked tech geek all-stars can spare five minutes to write a few lines of code so Blogger says the word "comment" when there's only one comment? Despite its literary aspirations (by which I may only mean its general inclination to avoid typos and grammatical errors), my blog sounds like Borat telling how he "met the David Lettermans in the New York Cities."

I mean, I appreciate the free blog software (not to mention the blog hosting, the so-good-it's-a-verb Google search, the also massively good Gmail, Google Reader, Google Text, Google Maps, Google Earth, Google Groups, Google Docs, YouTube, and the other Google products I haven't used yet but may someday), but come on. Sergey. Larry. I'm just saying.

Monday, November 19, 2007

In honor of my late grandfather...

...some of his puns: "Are you Hungary?" "Yes, Siam, Iran here." "Then Russia to the table and I'll Fiji." "Put the Greece in Japan and the Turkey on the China." "Sweden my coffee and Denmark my bill." "You can write a Czech, that's Finn with me." "I don't like your front door, is there a Norway out?"

I'm reminded of that old chestnut by my latest Flavorpill writeup, found here. If you're looking for something to do this weekend, and have no aversion to gratuitous kitsch, you could do worse.

Editor's note: a fuller version of the international pun routine is found here.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Quote Week, Day 5

Another Brit sounds off: the wisdom of Oscar Wilde.

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."

"Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future."

"I am not young enough to know everything."

"As long as war is regarded as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular."

"Bigamy is having one wife too many. Monogamy is the same."

"Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes."

"Life is never fair, and perhaps it is a good thing for most of us that it is not."

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go."

"Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike."

And a fitting conclusion for Quote Week: "
Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit."

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Quote Week, Day 4

Breaking it down with Winston Churchill.

"The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter."

"A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on."

"The power of man has grown in every sphere, except over himself."

"A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty."

"There is no such thing as public opinion. There is only published opinion."

"Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put."

"I am easily satisfied with the very best."

"A prisoner of war is a man who tries to kill you and fails, and then asks you not to kill him."

"However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results."

"Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried."

"Everyone has his day and some days last longer than others."

"History is written by the victors." ... and its less famous corollary, "History will be kind to me for I intend to write it."

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Quote Week, Day 3

"It wasn't until I saw Rickey that I understood what baseball was about. Rickey Henderson is a run, man. That's it. When you see Rickey Henderson, I don't care when, the score's already 1-0. If he's with you, that's great. If he's not, you won't like it."
—Oakland Athletics teammate Mitchell Page

"The Rickey Rally—a walk, two stolen bases and a sacrifice fly—was purist baseball at its best."
—Sportswriter Allen St. John

"I did a lot of study and I found that it's impossible to throw Rickey Henderson out. I started using stopwatches and everything. I found it was impossible to throw some other guys out also. They can go from first to second in 2.9 seconds, and no pitcher-catcher combination in baseball could throw from here to there to tag second in 2.9 seconds, it was always 3, 3.1, 3.2. So actually, the runner that can make the continuous, regular move like Rickey's can't be thrown out and he's proven it."
—Baseball scout Charlie Metro

Ed.: Nicknamed "the Man of Steal," Henderson is baseball's all-time stolen base king. His 1406 career steals are 50% more than the 938 of the all-time runner-up, Lou Brock. Henderson led the American League in steals 13 times, including every year from 1980 to 1991 except his injury-shortened 1987 season. He stole 100 bases in 1980, his first full big-league season, and an unbelievable 130 bases in 1982. There were nine entire teams that stole fewer than 130 bases that year.

"This is Rickey, calling on behalf of Rickey. Rickey wants to play baseball."
—Henderson, leaving a voicemail message for San Diego Padres general manager Kevin Towers

"Just because I believed in what I was doing on the field, and dedicated myself to playing the game, does that mean I'm cocky? Does that mean I'm arrogant? People who played against me called me cocky, but my teammates didn't. I brought attention, fear. I wanted to beat you in the worst way. If that made me cocky, so be it."
—Henderson, on his reputation

"Which one of you bad boys got some hits in you?"
—Henderson, to his bats

"I hit it out, but it didn't go out."
—Henderson, on why he broke into a home run trot on a long fly ball that bounced off the outfield wall in a 2001 game; he ended up on first base

"Scoring the most runs in major league history. You have to score to win."
—Henderson, on his greatest accomplishment

Ed.: He's right. Although the runs-scored statistic gets less attention than the home run (any given run scored being less dramatic and telegenic than any given home run), and lacks the home run's cultural resonance, in pure baseball terms it is more crucial to the success of a player's team and therefore more important.

The home run is one-dimensional, a function of a player's power, not his overall game. There is only one way to hit a HR, and it in turn is only one way to score a run. There are, however, numerous ways to score runs, each of which helps win a game, and Henderson excelled at all of them (and could also hit home runs). He averaged over 100 runs scored per year for his entire career.

Scoring more runs than anyone else in baseball history is a rare feat, made possible by the varied aspects of Henderson's greatness: his iconic base-stealing; his 2190 career walks, which eclipsed Babe Ruth's all-time record (since passed by Barry Bonds); his 3000+ hits, in themselves a ticket to the Hall of Fame; his career .401 on-base percentage; his power at the plate with 297 home runs, good for a spot in the all-time top 100 at the time he stopped playing, and a record 81 HR to lead off a game; and his longevity and fitness, with 3081 games played (fourth all-time). He also drove in 1115 runs himself, remarkable for a career leadoff hitter.

Henderson broke Ty Cobb's career mark en route to the all-time record of 2295 runs scored. Bonds, third all-time with 2227, could surpass Henderson in 2008. Babe Ruth and Henry Aaron, the last two players Bonds passed on the career home run ladder, are tied for fourth at 2174 runs scored. With 1501 runs already scored at age 32, Alex Rodríguez could have the last word among today's players.

With all that said, "Baseball isn't statistics, it's Joe DiMaggio rounding second base."
—Jimmy Breslin

The last word on a diamond gem: "Without exaggerating one inch, you could find fifty Hall of Famers who, all taken together, don't own as many records, and as many important records, as Rickey Henderson." Is Henderson a Hall of Famer? "If you could split him in two, you'd have two Hall of Famers."
—Baseball statistician Bill James

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Quote Week, Day 2

"Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety."

—Benjamin Franklin, An Historical Review of the Constitution and Government of Pennsylvania (1759)

Monday, November 12, 2007

Quote Week, Day 1

''Under capitalism man exploits man. And under communism it is just the reverse.''

—John Kenneth Galbraith, A Life In Our Times: Memoirs (1981)

Friday, November 9, 2007

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Illinois smoking ban

Illinois' stringent statewide ban on smoking in public places takes effect January 1, 2008.

Smokers, barkeeps, and restaurateurs are up in arms, as they were when the Chicago City Council passed such an ordinance in 2005.

They need not worry. When I was a kid, people eventually got over the passage of a similarly controversial law called No Punching Anyone You Want in the Face.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Suggested listening

Thanks to this man for recording a Ben Bass and Beyond soundtrack. The second volume, "Ben and," drops next week.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Arts, updated

1. Live music, tonight. Beloved local power-popsters Frisbie are the November artist in residence at Schubas' popular "Performance Space" series, performing there every Monday in November. Their stint kicks off tonight; opening acts vary. My Flavorpill writeup is here. You can't miss with a prodigiously talented band in a great room, for less than the price of a ticket to Good Luck Chuck.

2. Live music, this week. Against significant odds, Curt and Cris Kirkwood are back in fighting shape and the Meat Puppets are on tour with a new album under their belts. America's answer to the Kinks (i.e., a tuneful rock 'n' roller-coaster led by embattled brothers), the Pups have outwrestled their demons for the time being and play the Double Door this Wednesday and Thursday. My Flavorpill writeup is here.

3. Live music, coming weeks. Schubas' concert calendar includes two other upcoming shows of note. The Spares bring their tasteful Americana sound on Wednesday, November 28, and rising locals Canasta deliver the melodic chamber pop on Friday, December 14. You would enjoy attending these performances if you are into things that are good.

4. New Yorker Festival video. The New Yorker magazine has posted more event video from the 2007 New Yorker Festival. Among events previously discussed in this space, David Denby's interview with Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen is here, David Belle's parkour demonstration and conversation with Alec Wilkinson are here, and documentary filmmaker Errol Morris and writer Philip Gourevitch's discussion about Abu Ghraib is here. Other video worth checking out, including conversations with or between Steve Martin, Sigur Rós, Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, Orhan Pamuk, and Seymour Hersh, is here.

5. Chicago Humanities Festival. The 2007 Chicago Humanities Festival is in full swing. But why are you trying to learn about it on my blog? There's a whole website about it, found here. That's the site you should be looking at, not this one. You need to reëvaluate your life. Seriously.

6. "The devil is 6."

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Sound of Young America a coolly named NPR show "about things that are awesome," heard in various cities other than this one. With a curious host, hip guests in the creative arts (think WFMU), and a laid-back vibe, it's Fresh Air for the Facebook generation. Chicagoans can catch it via podcast.

The show rolled into town last night to record an episode at The Second City's ETC stage. Three local comedy troupes represented Chicago: Schadenfreude, who interrupted the show intro with a visit from Ald. Ed Bus (D-53rd); Team Submarine, a promising, baby-faced Scharpling and Wurster-style two-man attack; and Second City's National Touring Company, who roasted a few chestnuts including a Scott Adsit/Adam McKay classic. Hannibal Buress, who just won the Lakeshore Theater's Funniest Person in Chicago contest, handled standup duties with his usual soft-spoken command.

The main feature was an interview with iconoclastic recording engineer Steve Albini, knob-twiddler to rock groups like Nirvana, Pixies, PJ Harvey, Breeders, Page & Plant, Jesus Lizard, Low, and Cheap Trick. His strong opinions and ascetic sensibility are familiar to anyone who's followed his running commentary on the music industry over the past twenty years. A longtime lightning rod on the local and national music scenes, Albini also provided grist for countless barroom debates by engaging inhighly public squabbles with the likes of former Chicago Reader music critic Bill Wyman (no, not that Bill Wyman).

Albini's aesthetic is founded on an appealing modesty about the role of the recording engineer. As he recently posted in an online forum: "I don't really think the recording is that important to a great record. Great records would be great under almost any circumstances. Mediocre records that might otherwise have been unlistenable, well, yeah, I guess it matters then. An excellent recording can make a crappy record into one that is merely unremarkable. What kind of accomplishment is that?"

Albini is widely admired for his egalitarian ethic. Where many people, having midwifed the likes of Nirvana's In Utero, would coast on their big name and roster of famous clients, working infrequently and charging dearly, Albini chooses to make records nonstop for an affordable $650 day rate. As a result, he's engineered literally thousands of records for generally obscure bands, all of whom appreciate it.

In his interview, Albini was thought-provoking and funny, less acerbic than the rep that precedes him but thrilled at the death rattle of the sclerotic music industry he's long disdained. He may have mellowed just a little as he enters his dotage, but there's still fire underneath the placid surface.

Did I attend the event dressed as an elf? I did. Imagine my surprise to learn that it also happened to be Halloween.

Memo to WBEZ's Torey Malatia: How about adding The Sound of Young America to your lineup?

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

New improved flavor

As I mentioned the other day, I write event previews for Flavorpill Chicago.

Today marks a new chapter in Flavorpill's ongoing evolution. As many of its readers have noticed by now, the Flavorpill website and Tuesday email magazine are sporting a shiny new look. The weekly mailer will no longer include the entire week's events, but rather a handpicked smattering of events and links to many more on the site, which has itself been completely redesigned. It's easier to browse and the event calendar now looks 30 days ahead to help you plan your fun.

Check it out. While you're at it, grab your guitar and check out my latest Flavorpill writeup here. I neglected to include my pet remark about the Old Town School of Folk Music ("or as I call it for short, Old School"), so please insert that using the magic of your own imagination.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Saturday, October 27, 2007


My old college roommate recently started working as a first-year associate at a leading Chicago law firm. With A-list clients and attorneys, it's an elite shop; landing a job there is a coup for a young (or old) recruit. They in turn did well to get my pal, a great guy who earned an English literature PhD from Northwestern before serving as editor in chief of the law review at a top law school.

To me, though, he'll always be my college buddy, a companion to places like the Baseball Hall of Fame, Tiger Stadium and Wrigley Field and a favorite opponent around the tennis court, basketball hoop and Nintendo Tecmo Bowl gridiron. For the purposes of this story, let's call him Joe Smith. Notwithstanding his Jordanesque skills, he is not the former #1 overall NBA draft pick and recently acquired Chicago Bull of the same name.

The other day I wanted to call Joe at his new workplace, but I couldn't find his phone number. Because he'd just started working there, having taken the Illinois bar exam a few months earlier, his direct-dial extension was not yet posted to the firm's website. Neither was his name in Sullivan's, the annually published attorneys-only telephone directory.

Sure, I could have called his cell phone, but it was his first week on the job and I wanted to get him there. Even though the call wasn't work-related, I thought I'd give him a kibitz by ringing him at his new desk. My only recourse was to call the firm's main phone number, so I did.

The mush-mouthed law firm operator mumbled something unintelligible. She may well have said the name of the firm, and/or something like "may I help you," but to me it sounded more like "xaslf aerlgi pkvsd kisdf gklaerg." I said, "I'm sorry, is this (name of firm)?" She said yes. "Could you connect me to Joe Smith, please? He just started working there." "Hold on." I was placed on hold for a moment, then disconnected.

When I called back, the same operator answered. "Hi, you were trying to connect me to Joe Smith, but I think you may have accidentally hung up on me." "Who?" "Joe Smith." "One moment." Click-click. Disconnected. This was the best law firm in Chicago?

I called back a third time. A different operator answered. Her phone greeting, like that of her colleague, did not demonstrate a mastery of the conventions of spoken English. Trusting my redial button, I figured I'd at least reached the firm. I said, "Hi. Please don't disconnect me. The other operator just hung up on me twice. I'm trying to reach Joe Smith. He's a new associate." "Hold on."

After a long delay, I heard the outgoing voicemail message of someone who was not Joe Smith. Not even Joe Something, or Something Smith. Just some random person who might as well have been Daisuke Matsuzaka, whom at this point I would have welcomed as a telephone operator since he has a full-time translator.

I was starting to get a little irritated. Like everyone else, I'm sadly accustomed to calling big companies and getting stuck in their voicemail jail, unable to get a live person on the phone. But to call a prestigious business three times, start with a person each time, and go 0 for 3? How could a white-shoe law firm have two such rank incompetents forming their front line of defense? They have attorneys billing eight hundred dollars an hour. What if I'd been Jack Welch cold-calling, looking for a new law firm? Or a high-paying client? Or for that matter you or me or anyone else?

I wasn't defeated, just motivated. I decided that the best way to get to Joe was to reach a competent legal secretary, any competent legal secretary, somewhere in the firm. Such a person could certainly connect me, even to a new hire. I figured if I wanted to find a competent legal secretary, I should call the office of a competent lawyer. Conveniently, firms like this have their resident living legends. So I looked up one of them in Sullivan's.

Among lawyers, this guy is as big as it gets. He clerked on the U.S. Supreme Court before embarking upon an illustrious career as a corporate attorney, law school professor and community leader. The specifics are unimportant, but suffice it to say that this man's name precedes him in law schools, boardrooms and courthouses. Heck, his name appears on a few of them. He is a Big Deal.

I called his office, mentally preparing to explain myself to his secretary, but it was a quiet, older man's voice who answered the phone. The great man himself. Flustered and taken aback, I stammered out an explanation. He couldn't have been friendlier, apologizing for the confusion and assuring me he'd look into it. A few minutes later, he called back with Joe's direct-dial number. I reached Joe immediately and we had a nice chat.

I was abashed at what felt like my own effrontery, having inadvertently made a messenger of a semi-retired senior partner and reigning master of the universe, and yet, really, was it my fault? I'd tried to use the main number three times, and the firm had whiffed on three pitches. I'd never have called the elder attorney if I'd known he answered his own phone.

On the plus side, it may have been salutary for the big-time lawyer to hear how poorly staffed his firm's phones were. I doubt he calls the main number too often.

Also, I made a new friend. I think I'll ask him to make us lunch one of these days.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Pick of the week

I write event previews for Flavorpill, which publishes culture guides for cities including Chicago.

People trust Flavorpill's recommendations when they're looking for something fun to do around town. Our website has new events every day. We also email a weekly magazine every Tuesday to our subscribers, numbering in the five figures for Flavorpill Chicago. If you live in or around Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City, Miami, or London, check it out.

While you're at it, you can find my latest Chicago night-out suggestion here.

Monday, October 22, 2007

How Devin Hester rolls

Like they say in training camp, when you get to the Louis Vuitton auto-detailing shop, act like you've been there before.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

A moment of silence

When a great comedian dies, say a Phil Hartman or Mitch Hedberg, the loss we feel is visceral and immediate. Comedy is such an intimate art form, requiring as it does a connection between the minds of the performer and listener, that when a beloved comic leaves us, it's as if we've lost a close friend or relative.

Where many can't even name the members of their favorite band, much less describe their personalities, our affection for comedians is specifically a function of their personalities. (The Who got a new bass player after John Entwhistle died, but good luck replacing Richard Pryor.)

We know these people. So when they're taken from us, we feel it deeply. A piece of us dies with them. Never again will they stop by—if only via Tivoed late-night appearance or Deborah Solomon chitchat in the New York Times Magazine—with their latest funny musings. That hurts.

You might not think that the death of a comedy festival could make people feel the same way, but you'd be surprised. HBO's quiet announcement that after a thirteen-year run in Aspen, Colorado, its U.S. Comedy Arts Festival (the "USCAF") will not return in 2008, felt to many like a death in the family.

Why? After years spent soaking in the warm bath of its excellence, a lot of people feel a strong bond to the USCAF, which is (was? no, is; it's not officially dead, so for now let's stick with the present tense) inarguably the leading comedy festival in the United States. It's arguably North America's best as well, forming a good quinella bet with Montreal's Just For Laughs Festival.

The USCAF started small, founded by a few successful television producers who wanted to bring a celebration of comedy to their favorite mountain town. HBO was an increasingly important sponsor over the years, to the point where the festival was interchangeably known as the HBO Comedy Festival. The network eventually bought out the founders and took over the festival altogether.

Over time, the festival steadily grew into a comprehensive annual snapshot of both the state and the range of comedy in all its forms: wiseass sketch comedy upstarts, unknown but fast-rising standups, long- and short-form improvisation troupes, established headliners playing big venues, Hollywood writers and bit players stepping into the spotlight with solo shows, major stars accepting career tributes, cast reunions of hit movies and TV series, and offbeat fringe acts. There's also a film program featuring independent filmmakers working the festival circuit for distribution deals, a broad array of comedic shorts, and big releases fresh from Sundance but still wearing the halo of the not-yet-overhyped. You might even find some good bits happening right on the street.

There's a lot of great festival coverage online, but who needs great when you can read mine? I wrote about USCAF 2007 for the website of my friends in the stalwart comedy group Schadenfreude, who were themselves finalists for an Aspen performance booking. Click around the links here for the four installments.

So why's the fun stopping? The reasons are many. For years, iffy weather and resulting travel woes have frustrated the festival's logistics. Aspen's small airport, a short runway nestled in a steep, narrow valley, is unreachable by large jets, so visitors typically change planes in Denver and finish the trip in a fifty-seater (ignoring for simplicity's sake the fact that the runway was recently lengthened after years of local controversy, allowing a handful of cross-country direct flights per day, and the fact that the very rich, as opposed to the merely rich, visit Aspen aboard private planes).

Given these facts, the weather typical of wintertime in the Rocky Mountains can be problematic. This year, for example, a huge snowstorm blanketed western Colorado as the festival started, and the poor visibility prevented most flights from landing in Aspen. With 40-minute hops from Denver grounded, performers and audience members alike languished aboard six-hour bus rides. After months of planning, the first-day performance schedule was decimated and many shows canceled.

Besides getting there, way less than half the fun, there are other issues on the ground. The festival takes place in a popular ski town during peak (ha) season, and with hotel space at a premium, virtually the whole town gets booked up. Most innkeepers insist on minimum three- or four-night stays, but many industry types just want to blow into town for a night to catch a single performance or take a meeting. The festival's massive headquarters hotel, the St. Regis, is a principal source of lodging; already a hotel-condo hybrid, it's going completely condo, making the balance between supply and demand even more tenuous.

A further problem is that in 2005, HBO started a second comedy festival, a scaled-down, relatively vanilla showcase of big-name standups in Las Vegas every November. The Vegas event, bearing the appropriately bland moniker "The Comedy Festival," has siphoned off a measure of the star power of Aspen bookings and tested organizers' commitment to running not one but two annual festivals. As the aging dowager to Vegas' comely ingenue, Aspen has become increasingly tempting for HBO to triage. It bleeds red ink, and more of it every year, now rumored to be in the low seven figures per annum.

Then again, a few million bucks is chump change for America's most profitable cable network, thought to make something like $800 million a year. Not revenue; profit. As a loss leader of sorts, the USCAF is a wise investment; the halo effect of having HBO's name on the country's leading comedy festival is incalculable. Long ago, HBO staked its claim on being sui generis, "not TV, HBO," boasting must-see appointment programming available nowhere else. It defined itself early on as the place for innovative original series, the best boxing matches short of pay-per-view, and rock-star comedy specials. Sponsoring USCAF puts HBO's money where its mouth is as a comedy industry leader, burnishes its brand, adds to its mystique, builds widespread goodwill, and associates the network with a demographically desirable resort town and the industry players who populate it.

It also happens to generate television programming, both future, as a talent recruitment and evaluation engine, and present, simply by filming performances at, and specials about, the festival itself. HBO's Time Warner sister networks such as TBS do the same. So despite the challenges, there are good reasons for HBO to keep the festival chugging along, despite the gradual dissipation of political will to do so.

Probably the death knell for USCAF 2008 was Chris Albrecht's forced departure as HBO chief executive earlier this year following a highly publicized domestic violence incident. A former standup himself, Albrecht is a comedy enthusiast, hardcore skier, and Aspen loyalist. During his long tenure as HBO boss, he had both the clout and the inclination to recommit HBO each year to sponsoring the Aspen festival, an act a festival insider accurately described as Albrecht's "gift to the industry and the community." With Albrecht's ouster, the charity lost its primary benefactor, and it doesn't look promising that his successor will step up.

For the past several years, the festival continued amid whispered "this is the last year in Aspen" rumors, which have finally borne fruit. With its dependable weather and proximity to industry hub Los Angeles, Santa Barbara was widely expected to serve as a replacement locale for 2008, but ultimately, that plan was shelved.

The festival isn't necessarily gone for good, but given the above issues, it's not looking super-likely that we'll ring in Spring 2009 with peals of laughter in the thin mountain air. Many will feel the loss, from industry scouts, who rely on the festival as a dependable pipeline of new talent; to performers, many of whom owe significant career breaks to the festival; to the comedy enthusiasts who schedule vacations around the festival every March, often leaving their skis at home; to Roaring Fork Valley residents spoiled by the annual descent of an embarrassment of international talent; to local business owners and innkeepers, who won't go broke without the festival but will likely miss having the George Carlins and Garry Shandlings walk into their establishments (that week, anyway).

So thanks to the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival for all the laughs. Despite evidence to the contrary, here's hoping that condolences are premature.

p.s. Surely I will eventually write an entry in this blog about something other than a festival.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The New What-er Festival?

Since I started this blog by going off about the New Yorker Festival, I should probably provide a little context for my obvious enthusiasm.

The Festival is an annual whirlwind of cultural activity and stimulating people, a celebration of that great American tradition, the New Yorker magazine. I regularly attend the Festival on a mission to touch as many bases as possible and did so again this year. Friends from Chicago and elsewhere also come in for it, catching up between events and comparing notes over dinner. There's also usually someone smart and fascinating in the seat next to you or behind you in line. It's a great way to connect to the people behind the print version, as editors, writers and subjects leap off the magazine page and magically become three-dimensional before your eyes. Like the tennis U.S. Open, the New Yorker Festival makes an excellent centerpiece for a visit to New York City.

I went to NYC a day early to have dinner with a friend on Thursday night and saw the new revival of A Chorus Line on Broadway (the show of course gets an A+, this cast maybe a B-, and it happened to be Tony nominee Charlotte D'Amboise's night off, which presumably didn't help; still, enjoyed it). Friday, was fortunate to pay my latest backstage visit to the Conan show thanks to the great Chicago-bred comedy writer Brian Stack.

And Sunday night, made my usual return visit to the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater for ASSSSCAT improv, one of the small handful of Most Dependably Excellent Improv Shows Ever. In this week's model, the likes of Miriam Tolan, Seth Meyers, Amy Poehler, John Lutz, Paul Scheer, Rob Huebel, Peter Gwinn and Horatio Sanz broke it down with nonchalant authority. In case you are not familiar with these players, each has made some modest progress in the comedic arts.

But these were the aperitifs and dessert. As for the Festival itself, here's what I saw:

1. Friday night, documentary maker Errol Morris and writer Philip Gourevitch talked about their Abu Ghraib movie and book. Besides the grim subject matter, it was a weirdly tense and downbeat atmosphere even though they were preaching to the choir (I mean, does anyone feel proud or excited about what Americans did at Abu Ghraib?). This was my least favorite event of this and probably any other New Yorker Festival.

2. Saturday kicked off with humorist Andy Borowitz summing up the news in his clever, funny way. To see this I had to skip a panel on investigative journalism with Jane Mayer, James B. Stewart (DisneyWar) and Lawrence Wright (The Looming Tower) that I heard was terrific. There really is something for everyone at this festival, and if you have a lot of interests you have to make hard choices.

3. Film critic Anthony Lane and Columbia professor Simon Schama looked at history as depicted in Hollywood movies. Two witty Brits talking a mile a minute, interrupting each other, showing an amazing range of knowledge about film, particularly in the case of Schama since he's a history and art history professor, not even a film professor.

4. Features editor Susan Morrison interviewed Steve Martin about his early days as a standup comedian, promoting his upcoming memoir, Born Standing Up. This was excellent. Martin was candid and interesting and the well-prepared Morrison did a good job of drawing him out. The magazine has posted video of the entire event on its site; if you like Steve, check it out, you'll love it.

As if a Steve Martin interview weren't Hollywood enough already, it became more so as I took my seat. A friend of mine, the talented writer Jenny Blair, had grabbed us the last two seats in the rear corner of the Directors Guild of America auditorium. By the time I got there shortly before the event started, the place was packed and the rest of our row stood up for me as I sidled across to the empty seat. The last standee on my behalf was one Eugene Levy, whom I had met in Aspen at the Waiting For Guffman reunion at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival. Jenny later told me that Mr. Levy had been approached by a series of fans wanting autographs or photos before I got there; he'd accommodated them, but hadn't seemed too thrilled that hiding out in the last row hadn't worked.

I tried not to bother the guy, just mentioned that I'd had the pleasure of meeting his friends, Mr. and Mrs. Fred Willard, at the Conan show the night before, where Mr. Willard and Late Night writer Brian Stack, alums both, had compared notes on the early days of Second City, from Robert Klein to Mina Kolb to the late Avery Schreiber. Mr. Willard held court in his dressing room, telling us about seeing a young Woody Allen do some awkward standup comedy in the 1960s at the Chicago nightclub Mr. Kelly's, fumbling with his notes, stammering out the bits, learning his craft on the way up. We'd also discussed Mr. Willard's scene-stealing turn as a Westminster Dog Show TV announcer in Best In Show and Bob Balaban's family roots in the Chicago movie theater business. Mr. Levy -- and, for that matter, Mr. Martin -- would have added much to this colloquy, but they were a day late and seven blocks too far north.

5. Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Gopnik debated the issue of whether the Ivy League should be abolished. Happily, this was not at all stuffy or self-important, but rather funny and informative on the Ivies' flawed meritocracy. Interesting fact: today's admissions model with its goal of admitting well-rounded students came into being in the 1920s as a result of the so-called "Jewish problem." The kids of Jewish immigrants were so academically strong that under the existing admissions M.O., i.e. simply admitting the students with the best grades, they would have filled the entire Harvard, Yale, etc. campuses. As a result, the schools changed the game, admitting based on not only grades but other, softer criteria like legacy status, athletics, interviews, essays, and extracurricular activities, so they could admit whatever mix of students they wanted. This approach, often providing a means for connected BMOCs and beautiful people to sneak in the side door, persists to this day. How else would a well-born laggard such as a young G.W. Bush get into otherwise elite Yale?

6. Sunday morning meant "Bagels with Bob," a talk about New Yorker cartoons from cartoon editor Bob Mankoff. His funny, interesting stump speech and slide show described the selection process (he sees about a thousand gag panels per week and chooses the finalists for editor David Remnick, who picks the ones that go into the magazine); included a funny film about how Mankoff loves to reject everything; covered the popular caption contest; analyzed the psychology of humor; and poked fun at the magazine's extensive cartoon licensing efforts. Well worth attending.

7. That afternoon, an outdoor interview and demonstration from Frenchman and parkour creator David Belle. His nascent sport is a balletic mix of acrobatics, gymnastics and stunts using the urban environment as a canvas. Visually arresting and at times terrifying, parkour has grown in popularity and media attention since appearing in the latest James Bond movie, Nike commercials, and other trend delivery systems.

Belle is an unbelievable practitioner, the Baryshnikov of parkour, but also modest to a fault. He was reluctant even to perform any parkour at all, which was a little weird (after all, the Festival had flown the guy in from France and billed the event as an interview and parkour demonstration). There were about thirty apprentice types there doing some rudimentary moves, but Belle mostly just supervised as visiting guru, then submitted to an interview from Alec Wilkinson, author of the recent New Yorker parkour article. Eventually during the Q&A, when some tall guy from Chicago asked Belle in French to favor us with some parkour of his own, the large crowd applauded their agreement, and with a grudging smile he flashed a too-brief glimpse of his massive talent. Audience video of the event was permitted, some of which has been posted to YouTube (here's just Belle's encore), but other videos there give a better idea of how skilled he is. The guy is simply amazing.

8. The final event I saw was film critic David Denby interviewing Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen about Superbad, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Apatow's TV career, and his standup comedy days as Adam Sandler's roommate and Jim Carrey's opening act. Predictably, this was a freewheeling, smart, dirty, hilarious interview that the sellout crowd loved.

Apatow is a master of the anecdote, writing chops constantly on display as he speaks in hilarious paragraphs, and Rogen comes across as a sharper and more ambitious version of his familiar screen persona, the bearlike stoner with a heart of gold. Rogen had hosted Saturday Night Live fifteen hours earlier and looked as if he might have slept for twenty minutes since. Denby was a genial host if slightly out of it, referring to the director at one point as "Jeff Apatow," but it didn't matter. You don't interview these guys, you just knock over an occasional first domino and get out of the way.

I could choose a dozen representative stories from this nonstop cavalcade of laughs, but here's one chosen at random from my several pages of notes. When the makers of Superbad were casting the role of über-nerd Fogell, better known and (Mc)loved as McLovin, they sent a letter to the drama departments of Southern California high schools looking for the following: (i) an eighteen-year-old boy who (ii) looks thirteen, (iii) is a loser, and (iv) thinks he's awesome. When a skinny, reedy-sounding teen named Christopher Mintz-Plasse came in to read for the role, he said he'd heard about the opportunity from schoolmates who told him he was just the guy some filmmakers were looking for. His Superbad audition was his first ever, as one might have guessed when he asked co-writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg to autograph his script. Mintz-Plasse won the role despite having no professional acting experience and proceeded to steal the movie.

With something like seventeen films together in various stages of completion, including Knocked Up and Superbad released back to back this summer and the forthcoming "pothead action movie" The Pineapple Express, Apatow and Rogen have spent an aggregate three hours in the last three months not being interviewed, but they managed to keep it fresh. They also showed clips from their work together on TV series Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared and a scene cut from Knocked Up in which Rogen's meathead roommates discuss the abortion option in amusingly ignorant style.

After that, I wrote up my little article, saw some friends and that was that.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

What better way to kick off a blog...

...than a dance with the grande dame of American letters, the New Yorker? This past weekend I attended the eighth (and my fourth) New Yorker Festival, the magazine's annual celebration of arts and ideas. Merely attending the Festival is stimulating enough, but this year I decided to give the New Yorker treatment to the Festival itself, since the magazine won't, and kicked it Talk of the Town style. And that is a style well worth kicking. (It.) (In.)

I then had the pleasure of seeing my maiden voyage into aspiring Condé Nastery get the glamor treatment on Emdashes, a leading behind-the-scenes website about the New Yorker. Many thanks to Emily Gordon, the site's prolific, skilled editrix and my newest Festival friend. A meta-Remnick and a good one, Emily covers the New Yorker as thoroughly as the New Yorker covers everything else.