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.