Sunday, December 28, 2008

Zing

This guy threw a shoe at the president, which meant someone else's foot was in his mouth for a change.

Waka waka.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Happy birthday to...

...pretty much everyone but you, Jesus.

Scholars can't even agree on what year J.C. was born, much less the date, but the best evidence suggests that his birthday wasn't in December.

However, quite a number of other well known people were born on what we've come to call Christmas. So happy birthday to Sir Isaac Newton, American Red Cross founder Clara Barton, hotel magnate Conrad Hilton, Humphrey Bogart, Cab Calloway, Anwar Sadat, Rod Serling, Little Richard, Ken "The Snake" Stabler, Floridians Jimmy Buffett and Larry Csonka, Barbara Mandrell, Sissy Spacek, former Chicago Cub Manny Trillo, and Baseball Hall of Fame shoo-in Rickey Henderson.

And what the heck, to you too, Jesus, whenever your birthday is.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Understatement of the year

From the Chicago Sun-Times:
Oscars to Honor Jerry Lewis

Jerry Lewis, 82, will receive the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Academy Awards on Feb. 22. He has never been nominated for an Oscar.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Why I get the New Yorker

It's because of articles like the one I read yesterday, Todd Oppenheimer's "Sharper," a fascinating tour through the arcane world of knife makers.

I don't cook much, probably don't use a knife properly and don't really care. All I know about knives I learned at summer camp or in Cub Scouts and mostly forgot. Even for a nonparticipant like myself, though, it's a great read: informative, authoritative and constantly interesting.

The best New Yorker reportage comes in several flavors, the knife article being a combo treat you might call the Armchair Journey/Crash Course Swirl. It takes you somewhere you'd never go in your regular daily life and breaks it down so clearly that you feel like an expert in the field. You get the same experience reading a book by John McPhee, not coincidentally a longtime contributor to the same magazine.

Registration is required to read the entire article, but for starters, here's how the NYer website abstracts it:

ABSTRACT: OUR FAR-FLUNG CORRESPONDENTS about master bladesmith Bob Kramer. Bob Kramer is one of a hundred and twenty-two people in the world, and the only former chef, to have been certified in the U.S. as a Master Bladesmith. To earn that title, which is conferred by the American Bladesmith Society (A.B.S.), Kramer underwent five years of study, culminating in the manufacture, through hand-forging, of six knives, including a fifteen-inch bowie knife. Like a mad alchemist, Kramer, aged fifty, cannot stop tinkering with steel recipes. Last year, Cook’s Illustrated ran a sidebar which stated that the Kramer chef’s knife “outperformed every knife we’ve ever rated.” A few months later, the kitchen-supply chain Sur La Table asked Kramer to design a commercial line of knives, which the store introduced this fall. The writer toured Kramer’s shop. Kramer was absorbed in an attempt to replicate the legendary achievements of Frank J. Richtig, who, in 1936, forged a butcher knife that could cut cold steel and paper. Describes the forging process. On the retail market, Western knives tend to be the softest, with Rockwell ratings in the middle to upper fifties. The Rockwell of a traditional Japanese knife, by contrast, runs in the middle sixties. Kramer first became fascinated by sharpening in the mid-nineteen-eighties, when he was a prep cook. He took a forging course with A.B.S. and obtained his Master Bladesmith certification, a coronation the A.B.S. confers once a year in Atlanta, Georgia, at the Blade Show and International Cutlery Fair. Describes this year’s convention. Kramer’s role there was to serve as a human display item at the booth for the U.S. division of Kai, the Japanese houseware and cutlery corporation that is manufacturing his Sur La Table line, under its Shun brand. A significant virtue of a forged Kramer knife is that it takes a keen edge, holds it well, yet sharpens easily. His knives achieve a high level of performance because their Rockwell ratings hover around sixty—comfortably between Europe’s soft cutlery and the hard blades of Japan—and because his carbon steel has an unusually fine grain structure. Mentions Al Pendray, a horseshoer and Master Bladesmith, who is famous for almost single-handedly re-creating the ancient Persian method for making a highly distinctive form of steel called Damascus. Mentions John Vervoeven. During Kramer’s visit to Japan, he attended several meetings at Kai’s Shun factory, in Seki City, part of an area once known for samurai-sword making. Mentions Junichi Takagi and Harlan Suedmeier. After Kramer returned to Seattle, the writer received a photo of a bolt and baby pork bone, both splayed open. Lying on top of them was a blade with a fat but unchipped edge. Kramer had cut a newspaper with it, too.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The greatest book proposal of all time

Today, a treat.

To wrap up a week of comedy, here's something that just kills me. It's not only the greatest book proposal of all time but one of my favorite things ever. I'm not even exaggerating.

Let's start at the beginning. When I was a freshman in high school, I had a friend named Jason T____ whose father worked for a company that published books about hobbies and collectibles. They weren't in fiction, nor did they want to be, but they'd regularly receive book pitches from aspiring novelists who'd mass-mail any book publisher they could find.

Sadly, these proposals would at times betray a limited command of the conventions of written English, and would in such cases provide amusement fodder for all the wrong reasons.

One day my friend's dad brought home a nearly incomprehensible proposal for a novel called My Girls. The syntax was so tortured that its author seemed barely qualified to read a book, much less write one. (He compared favorably, however, to the current president of the United States.)

The would-be novelist, Al L_______, instantly became a legend in my circle of friends. Boy, did we enjoy a laugh or three at poor Al's expense, throwing his name around and quoting from his treatise for years after the fact. The mere repetition of a phrase from his masterpiece would light up the room.

The line that stuck with me for all these years was "A word of luck and ingenious skill, Louie [does whatever]." This sentence, of course, unintentionally establishes that Louie is a word of luck and ingenious skill. Whatever that is.

More broadly, I could only shrug at the proposal's dense plot, impossible to follow without a scorecard and, perhaps, protractor.

Eventually we all graduated and moved on. Jason, one of the smartest people I know, earned valedictorian honors in our high school class before acing his way through Harvard and embarking on a highly successful Wall Street career.

He's now living in Tokyo with his wife and daughter, still working in finance, but we've remained in touch. Jason was at 14 and remains today a very funny guy, an ironist of the first rank, and like me a gleeful connoisseur of Al L_______'s oeuvre.

Not having read the My Girls pitch since high school, I recently asked Jason whether he still had a copy. He wasn't sure, but once reminded of the holy grail, set out to get his hands on it. Doing so was tricky; it's been over twenty years and the source material predates the Internet era.

To his credit, though, the resourceful Jason somehow found a copy in an old box of paper files after an international search ranging from Connecticut to Japan. He was kind enough to type it up for me, then sent a revised version more completely reflecting the typos of the original.

And so, without further ado, I present Jason's gift to me, and my gift to the world. Set your wayback machine for I986. Here's Al L_______'s book proposal for My Girls:

Albert L_______
RE: “My Girls”
27 Seymour Drive
New City, New York IO956
January I2, I986

[Redacted]

Dear Ms. [redacted],

“My Girls” is the story about Michael Van'Dango, a seventeen year old man whom has his first love affair with his senior grade teacher, Ms. Regina Branigan.

Following graduation, Michael begins to pursue a dream of stardom as a vocalist with the assistance of his Cosa Nostra orientated uncle, Mr. Louie Santini.

Atop the realization of Ms. Branigan's conception regarding Michael's age, being fifteen years her junior, she feels it selfish to take away the best years of his life, and resulting, the couple separate in a delicate pictorial scene

Adored by his myriad audience, Michael becomes a household name as a famous singer and composer.

Returning home, he encounters Regina in a heartbreaking scene, in company with another man and this event magnifies some distraught.

Michael is then confronted with the mysterious disappearance of Regina and fights endlessly to try and locate her. However, her whereabouts never develope, and by this he concludes an irrational judgment of Regina wanting no further part of his life.

Incredibly, Michael then manages to develop a trio love affair relationship with Rachel, his manager and Karen his lyricist. This becomes a meaningful confrontation to the trio and the love scenes relate to it erotically. Nevertheless, the presentation is too coy to be straightforwardly pornographic and almost romantically idealized.

The explicit countenance of Federal Agents informing Michael that Regina had been missing due to her witnessing a murder from a Mafia family, accompanied by a warning that his life is also in danger.

On the way to Michael's New York apartment, surrounding him by Federal Agents for protection, and regardless of their extreme vigilantness, Michael gets shot and falls into a coma. One Federal Agent dies in this incident.

Michael's fans become profoundly most sorrowful and sympathetic.

Michael's uncle Louie makes arrangements for serious talks with the D'Esposito's, for they were involved in the assassination attempt on Michael's life.

A word of luck and ingenious skill, Louie convinces Pappa and Sonny that Michael has no knowledge of Regina's whereabouts. Following this, the D'Esposito's docilely tear up Michael's death contract.

Louie reveals to the girls that he has always been aware of their trio relationship with his nephew. He explains the situation of Michael's affair with Regina and informs them about her unfortunate dismal. He then deceitfully gives Rachel and Karen the illusion that Regina is dead, however, Louie had to influence them to believe this for relevant reasons of protecting Regina's new idenity. For he successfully arranged a plastic surgery alteration throughout Michael's discovery of her disappearence.

After Michael breaks out of unconsciousness, from his coma, Louie reveals to him about Regina's tragic occurrences.

Opening night at Michael's debut performance, he presents the startling news to Rachel and Karen about Regina being alive. And here, the trio relationship falls apart in a tremendous repercussion of heartbreak emotion.

While performing on stage, Michael unexpectingly witnesses a woman backstage. Momentarily he realizes that she is Regina for relevant indications. He also is confronted with a little toddler never knowing that he had, for throughout Regina's idenity change, she was also pregnant with Michael's baby. And in a most outstanding, emphatically, imaginary vivid scene, Rachel and Karen were present on stage and gave Michael their tear stained goodbye.

Michael and Regina get married in a chapel in Las Vegas. On their way to their honeymoon in a chauffeured limousine, Rodney the driver notices Michael, Regina, and baby Nicole asleep.

Federal Agents and the girls skillfully find Michael's location vehical parked outside the town of Las Vegas on a secluded road surrounded by desert.

Tragically, announcing over a P.A. system in a helicopter, hovering just above the limousine, a Federal Agent warns them that the vehical has a bomb set to go off at any given moment. And in a profound visual attempt of heroism, Rachel and Karen try and rescue the trio.

In a sound gripping explicate style, and an enormous sorrowful ending. Just little Nicole survives, in a breathtaking, tear-jerking termination of “My Girls.”

Cordially,
Albert L_______

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A standup guy


Comedy week continues...

The other day I wrote about one of the best standup comedians in the business. We've got some solid comics on a local level too. One of them, Robert Buscemi, has a big show tonight at the Annoyance Theatre. Come on out if you're into things that are good.

My Flavorpill preview is here.

Monday, December 15, 2008

America: All Better!


Last evening I had the pleasure of attending the opening night performance of The Second City's 96th Mainstage revue, America: All Better!

Great title for a show born in post-November 4 euphoria, and it lives up to it. My Flavorpill preview will surface in the next week or so. Until then, here's a preview of my preview: go see this show.

It's got everything you'd want from a night at Second City, pouring on the funny with smart jokes, a self-assured cast, crowd-pleasing songs, punchy one-line blackouts and solid, unhurried relationship scenes. A nice balance between silly and sophisticated, topical and timeless.

It all unfolds on a minimalist set with Second City's trademark monochromatic costumes. It's the little things that grab your eye, the syncopated entrances and exits, the time-dashes and subtleties that can ennoble and elevate a show, and do here.

Director Matt Hovde proves his recent smash Campaign Supernova! was no fluke by delivering another winner. If Supernova was a home run, America's a solid double in the gap. Come to think of it, Hovde also directed the well-received Mainstage revue Between Barack and a Hard Place. Having swung at three pitches, he's batting 1.000.

I like the writing choices the cast has made. Yes, they've got the obligatory Obama bits (and found room for a swipe at Blagojevich after his scandal broke during previews), but Second City roundly covered the presidential race in their past few shows. This time they take a road less traveled, scoring with a funny running gag starring Rahm Emanuel as the badass political fixer he pretty much is in real life.

They do return for the umpteenth time to that local pot of comedy gold, Rich Daley, but find an original angle as the mayor clumsily pitches Chicago's candidacy for the 2016 Games to an unimpressed International Olympic Committee. More broadly, America acknowledges our troubled times, but sparingly enough to let us forget them for a while.

The full-cast scenes, long a signature of Second City, also hit paydirt in this go-round. The show opens and closes with very different classroom sketches; both work. The second act begins with a group therapy session set in a prison; it's layered with good punchlines and better tossed-off follow-ups.

I'm chuckling just reading over my notes. The elegant Shelly Gossman as a too-polite professional wrestler; jaded Joe Canale as the last polar bear, doing some nifty crowd work interviewing an audience member about climate change; Anthony LeBlanc's amorous interracial slow jam getting big laughs rhyming "my baby's mama" with "let's make our own Obama"; feisty Emily Wilson as a wedding DJ with a poor sense of repertoire; a loopy Cornel West pontificating on MTV Spring Break; Brad Morris chipping in two cute turns as a guy on a date; "The Chicago Cubs are one strike away from winning the World Series! What could possibly go wrong?"

Second City deserves credit for promoting secret weapon Michael Patrick O'Brien to the Mainstage cast. He's not an obvious Second City type: the alpha male who plays hard (Talarico, Farahnakian, McKay); the classy leading lady (Villepique, Erdman, Cannon); the brainy wiseacre (Ramis, Tolan, Glaser); the ballbusting pixie (Hoffman, Messing, Sagher); the put-upon regular guy (Bakkedahl, C. Cackowski, Dorff); the lovable optimist (McBrayer, Myers, Margolis); the resident goofball (Weir, Adsit, Sedaris).

Though his oblique, offbeat sensibility recalls few of his forebears on this stage, O'Brien's writing chops and committed intensity are huge assets. The one-man show he mounted at Second City e.t.c. last spring, Shatter, was a bravura showcase of A+ material, some of the best sketch comedy I've seen in years. It earned him this gig and he shows why throughout. His enjoyable running bit as a macabre doomsayer, for example, provides context and ties the show together.

Bottom line, America delivers the goods. Now let's hope the fellow Chicagoan the title invokes can do likewise.

Update:  My Flavorpill preview is here.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Louis CK

As you probably know if you've talked comedy with me, one of my favorite comedians is the great Louis CK. Loved his writing on The Chris Rock Show, loved his writing on Conan, loved his obscure movie Tomorrow Night. Never really got into Pootie Tang but I know a lot of people did.

Mostly I love his standup. I've seen him perform in Chicago, New York and Aspen and he's a master of the form at every altitude. If you've seen one of his frequent late night talk show appearances, or his several HBO specials, or his recent one on Showtime (boo, I don't have Showtime), you know what I'm talking about.

The first time I saw him do standup on Conan, I think while he was still working there as a staff writer, he electrified the crowd with some killer material. Twelve or fifteen years later I can still repeat five or six minutes of that routine off the top of my head.

He's still a regular guest and friend of the show. In fact, I was lucky enough to visit the Conan show in October and smiled to see, a week or two after he'd appeared there, the screen-printed name tag from his dressing room door now adorning a rolling rack of the house band's outfits. Apparently they just like having the guy around.

Who wouldn't? He's hilarious. Plus he excels at my favorite pastime: calling out and ridiculing those who deserve it.

Here's a recent example:

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The thrill of victory

"What makes you think I wouldn't be up for sushi?"


On the strength of the above witticism, FOBB&B Neal Svalstad has won the New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest. Way to go, Neal!

The three finalists in order of finish:

FIRST PLACE
"What makes you think I wouldn't be up for sushi?"
Submitted by Neal Svalstad
El Cajon, Calif.

SECOND PLACE
"Remember the Alamo—now, that was a foreclosure!"
Submitted by David Blume
New York, N.Y.

THIRD PLACE
"I can't say for sure, but I think the airline mixed up my luggage."
Submitted by Mark Ashton
Elmhurst, Ill.

Thanks to everyone who joined me in voting for Neal's joke. Although his bon mot was the best one, you still gotta get the votes if you wanna win. Heck, even Obama had to raise that pesky half a billion.

Just like the president-elect, Sval got it done. Congratulations to the Striking Viking!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Friends with benefits

As Flavorpill editor Audrey Mast observes in the weekly email blast that will hit your inbox on Tuesday (you do subscribe to Flavorpill Chicago, don't you?), 'tis the season to receive donation entreaties from every charity you've ever supported.

Those piles of bulk-rate mail are a reminder of the ongoing needs of worthy causes around us. I'm doing my part, continuing my annual tradition of sharing my largesse with the local street urchins in my neighborhood. Heck, it's only December 7th and I'm almost out of nickels.

Writing a check or breaking out a Visa card is well and good, but there are more festive ways to help out a deserving cause. In fact, two of them are going on this week in Chicago.

On Tuesday, the Second City comedy theater presents "The Second City That Never Sleeps: Letters To Santa," its seventh annual holiday benefit. Proceeds go to buy holiday toys for needy Chicago children. The best part is, they pick up at the Chicago post office and then answer actual letters that kids have written to Santa, helping the big guy deliver Christmas presents for the tykes who need them most. If that doesn't warm your heart, leave my blog at once and never come back.

Audience members will get something in their stockings too, in addition to the good feeling of helping out. As ever, this show is a 24-hour marathon of comedy, music, tomfoolery and surprise guests, well worth the price of admission charity or no charity. It all starts Tuesday at 9pm.

My picks are the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater's ASSSSCAT show, a dependably first-rate exercise in long-form improvisation Tuesday at 10pm, and the sweetly raucous rock of The Breeders Wednesday at 4pm. Wilco's Jeff Tweedy puts a button on the long day's journey into night with a special solo set Wednesday at 9pm. My Flavorpill preview is here.

You've got to choose between your Illinois-bred rock icons, for while Belleville native Tweedy is tuning his guitar in Pipers Alley, the pride of Rockford will take the stage at the Vic Theater. It's the 93XRT Holiday Concert for the Kids, hits courtesy of everyone's favorite class clowns, Cheap Trick. My Flavorpill preview (yes, Virginia, I wrote one) is here.

Whether you make these shows or not, why not share the holiday cheer by giving generously to a worthwhile charity or two, and have yourself a merry little Christmas while you're at it.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Too little too late

NO JET THIS TIME Rick Wagoner, G.M. chairman, on the passenger side of a Chevy Malibu hybrid Wednesday en route to Washington. [New York Times, Dec. 4, 2008; photo by Gerald Herbert, Associated Press]


Sorry, buddy. Not interested in throwing $25 billion of taxpayer money at your problem, only to watch you burn through it and come back in six months and ask for more. I think I also speak for the rest of America on this one.

Way to go, though, on not taking three separate private jets to Washington on your second visit. We're all impressed at the humility you found only after being buried by the collective scorn and derision of the entire world.

If you really need some cash, roll over and ask the people you've been in bed with for decades, the oil industry. They made money hand over fist during the SUV era (ExxonMobil cleared $40 billion in a single quarter). Having ridden you like a raft to the promised land, surely they'll be happy to bail you out.

Maybe your going out of business isn't such a bad thing. Toyota and Nissan seem to be doing all right and they make better cars than you do anyway. The market has spoken.

I have yet to hear a proposal from you or any of your Detroit cohorts that sounds anything like a plan to make the Big Three viable and competitive or reduce their dependence on foreign oil. If only you all hadn't killed the electric car twenty years ago.

You personally made $25 million this year, so you'll be fine in your Grosse Pointe mansion. Wish I could be so dismissive of your thousands of former and current employees whose jobs and/or pensions aren't looking too secure these days.

Sincerely,
Another guy who hates you

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Sold!

Some radio ads attract the wrong kind of attention:

"The explosive action of Wanted comes to Blu-Ray hi-def with perfect picture and perfect sound."
And a terrible script, but at least it's all loud and pretty.

"Critics call Wanted the most visually inventive, trailblazing film of its kind."
And that kind is "movies that suck."

"Angelina Jolie has never looked hotter."
She's made a hundred million dollars trading on her looks, so I doubt she minds, but essentially calling her a piece of meat in the ad copy is a little much.

Speaking of her looks, note how disturbingly thin her arm is in that airbrushed poster art. She doesn't look like that in real life, nor should anyone want to.

"James McAvoy simply rocks."
The next person who buys a movie because James McAvoy is in it will be the first. Hats off to his agent for getting this line in there.

"And Morgan Freeman elevates Wanted to the next level."
And that level is "otherwise forgettable Morgan Freeman vehicle."

"Discover the true origins of the Fraternity with an all-new alternate opening only on Blu-Ray."
If it's an alternate opening, doesn't that mean it's a different take that you filmed but chose not to include in the canonical movie, but are including as an inducement to buy the home version? If so, how can that be considered the true origins? I guess if the theatrical opening doesn't speak to the origins, it could be. Arguably. Either way, I find this line distracting and annoying (much like the other lines). Grade: C-.

"Plus, create your own video commentary to watch with the movie and send to your friends."
Technologically interesting, but I don't know which is less likely: my buying this movie, my creating my own video commentary, or my mustering the sheer balls to send that commentary to my friends and suggest that they watch it. Actually, they are all equally likely, with a probability of zero.

It's vain enough that I continue to pound away at this blog in the hope that my friends might occasionally check it out. Shockingly, they actually do. At least they can read it while they're bored at work. I would never be so presumptuous as to think they'd devote their weekend couch time to my commentary on a silly action movie.

Who would possibly do this commentary thing, either the recording or the watching? Is this aimed at 12-year-old kids? I'm not even trying to be rude (this paragraph, anyway), I'm seriously baffled at who would have any interest in this.

Also, if I thought I were that good a writer, I'd move to Santa Monica and bang out scripts for half a million per, I wouldn't send them to my friends. Eliot Spitzer's whore didn't give it away for free and neither would I. Even if my commentary were snide and sarcastic, MST3K's already been there and done that.

"Wanted. Rated R. Own it now on 2 disc Blu-Ray hi-def for the perfect hi-def movie experience."
Wait, wait, wait. Did you say it was on Blu-Ray?

Also, I love the way movie studios use the word "own" when they mean "buy." We've cracked your code, Hollywood. You had us for a few years but now we know what you mean.

Of course, I haven't actually seen the movie, so maybe it's great, though I don't recall too many critics or fans feeling that way. All I'm saying is, the ad is convincing me not to check it out.

Apparently Wanted was a pretty good graphic novel. If anything, I'd look for that.

With this installment of my half-baked opinions, I'm Andy Rooney. Good night!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Fa la la la la

The Lite FMs of the world once again tried to kick off the holiday season in what felt like early October, blanketing the area with pre-Thanksgiving Christmas music in 58-degree weather.

Well, they got their wish. It's December, it snowed overnight, and it does in fact look like a winter wonderland out there. (Note to radio PDs: that would have happened anyway.)

And so it now feels timely to draw your attention to the City of Chicago's annual festival of holiday carols sung live beneath Cloud Gate, better known as the "Bean," Friday evenings after work for the next month.

My Flavorpill preview (you guessed it) is here.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Getting out the vote

With that other election behind us, it's time for America to stand together on a matter of real importance: helping my friend Neal Svalstad win the New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest.

In the several years since its introduction, the NYer C.C.C. has delighted the New Yorker magazine readership and bedeviled the subset that thinks it's funny. With over five thousand submissions a week and room for only three finalists, talking the talk has proven easier than walking the walk. Good for you, Neal: even making the final three is quite a coup.

Now it's time to get out the vote. The New Yorker has been known to overlook worthy submissions (ahem) but to its credit, much like America, occasionally nominates a truly outstanding candidate. The rest of us can live with being Adlai Stevensons as long as we can see the occasional Obama get the nod.

Of course, Team Obama had 22 months to prime the electorate, and we have but a few days; voting ends this Sunday at 11:59 p.m. E.S.T.

So vote! Get your friends to vote! Tell your mailman to vote! Train your dog to click a mouse, then tell it to vote! Form an exploratory committee to determine whether your superintelligent dog is a viable candidate to take back that House seat in your district from the GOP! Then take a nap, you've earned it! Then get someone else to vote! (By the way, I hope all of those votes you just wrangled were for Neal.)

Once again, the polling place is here:
http://contest.newyorker.com/CaptionContest.aspx?tab=vote&affiliate=ny-caption

Pass the link around! Share it with your loved ones! Make a T-shirt out of it! Tell everyone to vote Svalstad!

If the United States can produce a historic election result once in November 2008, we can do it twice. Neal's a funny man and a great guy, so he's deserving of this laurel. He and his beautiful bride Erin are about to become first-time parents, so let's usher in that era in style.

America, join me in helping the "Striking Viking" win the New Yorker caption contest. Let's do this.

Yes we can!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Afterglow


Chicago's been an interesting place from which to take in the election and its consequences.

I sat out the election night Grant Park mob scene, although my brothers and seemingly half of my friends were there. As much as I love people, I hate crowds (being stranded in them, at least), and I'm content being merely near, not at, history as it unfolds. I'd rather watch the returns on TV, bouncing among the various networks, pundits and politicos. If the Cubs made the World Series I'd probably feel the same way.

Chicago's still getting used to all the attention. From time to time, of course, the national spotlight shines on us: Siskel and Ebert proved this wasn't showbiz flyover country; the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is often called the nation's best; Mike Royko, Ann Landers and Bob Greene wrote for our dailies but were widely read in the provinces; Paul Harvey broadcast to millions from here each day; our options and futures markets lead the world; Michael Jordan made this the basketball capital of the 1990s; the University of Chicago boasts something like 81 Nobel laureates and counting; and our queen bee presumably wouldn't mind if we renamed this place Oprahville.

But when it comes to national affairs, Chicago usually takes a back seat to other cities: D.C. for politics, N.Y. for culture, L.A. for weirdness. Although we've hosted a lot of political conventions over the years, mostly back when they actually used to nominate presidents, the presidents themselves have come from somewhere else: Midland, Little Rock, Hyannisport, Yorba Linda, Plains. Downstate Illinois produced presidents Lincoln, Reagan and Grant, but Hyde Park as the home address of the commander in chief? That will take a little getting used to.

I'm loving the Chicago flavor of it all, the congratulatory banners hanging from lightposts, the off-duty Windy City cops helping to protect the man of the moment, the excitement of quasi-presidential motorcades shuttling around town. Few were surprised when Obama named a longtime ally, U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-5th), as his chief of staff. A loyal foot soldier in the Beltway wars, Emanuel started his political life as a fundraiser for Rich Daley before serving as an adviser to President Clinton and succeeding Rod Blagojevich in Dan Rostenkowski's old House seat. Unlike Obama he's a lifelong Chicagoan; his dad was a well-known North Side pediatrician.

On the pop culture side his brother Ari Emanuel, a top Hollywood agent, was one of the inspirations for the Ari Gold character on Entourage, and Rahm himself is said to be the model for vote retriever Josh Lyman on The West Wing. "Rahmbo" also volunteered in the Israeli civil defense force and until I hear otherwise I'll continue to assume he can kill a man with his bare hands. I live a block away from the guy and I'm glad we only rarely run into each other. I find Rahm Emanuel a profoundly scary individual but I'm glad he's on our side.

Me, I wouldn't have minded seeing Emanuel, until last week the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the fourth most powerful House member, stay right where he was. He's been pretty impactful in that job, twisting arms to get congresspeople in line, allocating money among House races and recruiting candidates to run for seats in vulnerable GOP districts. He had as much to do with the Dems' sweeping 2006 congressional victory as anyone.


Emanuel would have been a major asset on the Hill helping shepherd Obama's agenda through Congress. Then again, it's hard to imagine a more effective chief of staff—he's tough as nails, well-connected, and one of few Democrats with significant congressional and White House experience—and he's earned the executive branch glamor gig. So have other party stalwarts like Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and Bill Richardson, and they're all getting theirs.

Some Republicans have already been heard to gripe that by choosing a tough-minded chief of staff, Obama betrayed his own promise of a new style of politics. Waah. If that's the worst you can say about the president-elect, as opposed to the things I could say about the current guy (the "president-unelected"), that's good news for all of us. Anyway, you should be happy Obama picked a ballbuster to coach the team. Maybe it will help undo some of your damage.

More generally, after years of cringing in anticipation of, and then being depressed by, pretty much every major presidential decision, what a pleasure to have complete confidence that whoever Obama appoints to his cabinet will be fit for the job. Or that his economic stimulus proposal will be well thought out (not to mention blessed by the likes of Paul Volcker, Robert Reich and Warren Buffett). Or insert your issue of choice here: stem cell research, CIA torture at Guantanamo, energy independence, early childhood education, global warming, health care, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran. Of course, all of these are issues of choice.

The president-elect is deeply impressive in many ways, chief among them his judgment. He is known for listening to all sides, particularly to those who disagree with him, before rendering a decision (compare that to the current president, who cares to hear only from yes men and Fox News, and who lets his staff summarize the newspapers for him). As for the quality of the decisions he so renders, Obama hasn't come close to disappointing me yet and he seems like the kind of guy who never will.

This is not some left-leaning Pollyanna merely hoping it were so, although of course I do. I've been following Obama's career with increasing interest since he was in Springfield and he's given me plenty of reason to believe he's the real deal. People who knew him a lot better and a lot earlier feel the same way (his fellow Harvard law students called him the future president, and admiringly). When I heard Eric Holder was Obama's choice for U.S. Attorney General, the name only vaguely rang a bell, but my knee-jerk reaction was pretty much, if Obama likes him then so do I.

For the record, Holder was the number two guy in President Clinton's Justice Department and prosecuted Rostenkowski for breaking federal laws; the blemish on his record was his signing off on Clinton's controversial pardon of shady financier Marc Rich on the way out of the Oval Office. Holder has since apologized for that miscue and has enjoyed a successful and well-regarded prosecutorial career. Compare him to President Bush's first two Attorneys General, the venal fundamentalist John Ashcroft and the longtime G.W. Bush factotum Alberto Gonzales. There's no comparison.



Different as they will be, there is of course an inevitable overlap between the 43rd and 44th presidencies, and to Bush's credit, he's apparently been a model of accommodation and generosity in assisting the transition along. When the Obamas visited the Bushes at the White House, I found the body language striking. It was Obama who athletically patted Bush on the back, not vice versa as one might have expected from the incumbent, Obama as the older brother, Obama who seemed presidential. It was easy to see his backpat as a gesture of forgiveness, an absolution. I was reminded of a moment at the end of the sixth Harry Potter book when a scared young student, in over his depth, ostensibly holds the reins of power, but his professor, although technically in a position of vulnerability, is actually in charge. And they both know it.

What's also nice is that Obama and company will mostly remain in Chicago during the transition period. After 22 months working the road, they're entitled to a little stability, at least geographically, during this time of upheaval. There's something to be said for sleeping in your own bed and getting to wake up to your family, as Obama told Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes during his first post-election interview.

It was a pleasure to watch an hourlong substantive conversation with the Obamas. They came across as the unflappable, self-assured people they are, deserving of and ready for the challenges before them. What a luxury to have a president who radiates charm and intelligence, who seems to feel humbled by and aware of his place in history, who continually evidences a firm command of the issues we face, who is regarded with delight rather than apprehension by people throughout the world, who can speak in complete sentences. Not surprisingly, the interview delivered 60 Minutes' highest ratings in nine years.

Extending its triumphant return to hard news coverage, 60 Minutes followed up the big Obama get with a nifty roundtable featuring the Obama campaign's four top officials, taped late election night with victory still hanging in the air. Their discussion of how they turned red states blue, dealt with the Rev. Wright explosion and took their cues from their candidate was compelling television. Both of these fine pieces are available for viewing at the CBS News website.

The Os are taking their kids to school one day, grabbing a dinner date the next, trying to maintain a semblance of a normal life amid the security briefings and fact-finding visits to D.C. schools. Obama and adviser Valerie Jarrett walked into the landmark downtown deli Manny's on Friday and bought corned beef sandwiches and potato pancakes to go, an act that would have been somewhat more routine had they neither been accompanied by several dozen reporters and photographers (which is how you and I heard about it) nor greeted by a restaurant-wide round of applause. But such is life when you're the next president.

Soon enough the transition period will be over and the Obamas will be off to Washington. For now, though, the golden glow remains.

Friday, November 21, 2008

That's a wrap

Events Week (for what other name could we give to a week in which all I do is babble about events?) wraps up today with one more cultural pearl for your consideration.

The buzzed-about new independent movie Humboldt County makes its Chicago area premiere this evening, kicking off its exclusive booking at the historic Wilmette Theatre.

My Flavorpill preview is here.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Banner day

Attention Loop office workers:  
Get your municipal pride on at the City of Chicago's annual Banner Auction.  They're selling off those streetlight signs that promote festivals, sporting moments and musicals gone by.  Proceeds go to charity.  

The action kicks off today at noon in the lobby of the Daley Center; my Flavorpill preview is here.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Ironies

As John McCain has become immensely wealthy and politically powerful, his posturing as a regular working-class guy, while never particularly plausible, has grown more insistent.

In a like fashion, even as Billy Corgan played ever-larger arenas and commanded more attention on the world's cultural stage, his whining and self-pity commensurately increased.

The McCain psychodrama, while far from over, is at least yesterday's news as the would-be common man, having sold out his beliefs on the campaign trail, skulks back to what for many people would be a dream job in the U.S. Senate.

Corgan's, however, is back in the spotlight today as he kicks off a week of shows marking the Smashing Pumpkins' twentieth anniversary.  My Flavorpill preview is here.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Attention dorks

New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz and crossword constructor extraordinaire Merl Reagle will appear as themselves on tonight's episode of The Simpsons. Geek manna!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Jacking the ball

Beloved and seldom seen jazz-pop combo The Sea and Cake will appear tomorrow evening at the Empty Bottle. One Chicago institution, two shows.

How can you not love a band that once named an LP The Fawn?

My Flavorpill preview is here.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The OC

August: Osage County is headed for the silver screen, the logical next step for a play that's lit up the American theater.

It all started right here in Chicago last year, when Tracy Letts' family melodrama premiered with a red-hot run at the Steppenwolf Theatre. Tickets sold out weeks in advance as national critics sprained their writing hands trying to out-rave each other.

It soon became apparent that the show was Broadway material, and to their credit, producers transferred the entire production to New York intact. It's become routine to replace serious stage actors with movie stars when straight plays move from the hinterlands to the Great White Way, but August's original cast and crew moved wholesale. The producers' faith in them was rewarded when the Broadway production earned more positive notices and an armful of Tony Awards. Letts also took the Pulitzer Prize for best drama.

Next up, the Hollywood version. Former Miramax chief and now Weinstein Co. head Harvey Weinstein bought the film rights and will produce the big-screen adaptation. You may remember Harvey from his recent turn playing himself on Entourage (or wait, I think that was his brother Bob).

Congratulations to producer and FOBB&B Steve Traxler, who was as responsible as anyone for bringing the show to Broadway, and who will serve as a producer on the movie version.

Here's more from an industry publication:

TWC heads to 'Osage County'; Weinstein, Doumanian, Traxler to produce
[Variety]

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Still running your lives

I've never been shy about urging you, my literally tens of readers, to do this or go to that.

It's not that I know best how you should spend your time (although I do). It's mostly that for someone who wants to keep their blog current, there's a lot of white space to fill, and sometimes you're at a loss for subject matter. When you also write for a going-out guide like Flavorpill, you've got a steady stream of cool events and performances to talk about, which helps fill the gaps between the deep thoughts and the dick jokes. Plus it's stuff that I think is worth recommending, and doing so helps promote Flavorpill in a town where it's still emerging.

The latest example is a nice standup comedy show tonight and tomorrow, the first Zanies headlining gig for a homegrown talent. Cure your midweek blahs by spending Veterans Day with a veteran of the Chicago comedy scene. You'll be supporting a good guy, and happily for you, he's hilarious. Everybody wins.

So tonight and tomorrow, live on stage, it's Hannibal Buress. My Flavorpill preview is here.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The world is watching

Image courtesy FOBB&B Kristy Mangel

Friday, November 7, 2008

Last-minute laughs

If you're looking for some fun this weekend, I highly recommend The Interview Show, 6:30 this evening at the Hideout, hosted by FOBB&B Mark Bazer. A mere 5 bucks gets you not only Mark's patented wisecracks but lively interviews of the following creative types:
  1. Playwright Keith Huff, whose critically acclaimed show A Steady Rain had a nice run this year at the Royal George Theatre;
  2. Filmmaker Steve Conrad, whose movie The Promotion I almost saw this summer (you can put that on your résumé, Steve); and
  3. Some comedy group called Schadenfreude that I have never heard of, but apparently the kids are into.
There's also a nice comedy showcase tonight and tomorrow at 10 at the Lakeshore Theater featuring two standups I like a lot, Eugene Mirman and Kumail Nanjiani, and a third one, Larry Murphy, whojudging by the company he keepspresumably doesn't suck.

My Flavorpill preview is here.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Memo to Katie Couric

It's Grant Park, not "the Grant Field."

Election Day

I voted. Did you?

Although we all know Illinois is in the bag, it was still exciting to cast a vote for Sen. Obama. In a world where there's every reason for our best and brightest to shun public life, it's an honor to have a presidential candidate so profoundly impressive.

Finally, in honor of Election Day, here's something I once wrote about it for the online version of Dave Eggers' magazine, McSweeney's.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Attention voters

It's a ritual nearly as old as democracy itself. Voters walk into the voting booth so focused on the top of the ticket that they either don't bother to vote in state and local races or cast an uninformed vote based on the thinnest available evidence.

Why else would a handful of obscure candidates in every Chicago election legally anoint themselves with middle names like O'Leary, Flanagan and Fitzpatrick? They're counting on our ignorance and apathy.

Likewise with the safe-sounding Fairchilds and Harts of the world, who hope we'll find out they're deranged LaRouche acolytes only after they defeat the "weird-sounding" Olyskiewiczes and Husseins (their Yale law degrees, successful legal careers and moderate views notwithstanding).

But as Tip O'Neill said, all politics is local. In fact, you could make a pretty good case that the more local the election, the more direct its effect upon you. An alderman or condo board president affects the quality of your life in ways much more tangible than a statewide or national officeholder can. Under any other administration I'd compare their impact to that of the president, but doing so this year would distract from and weaken my argument.

Take the retention races for Cook County Circuit Court and Illinois Appellate Court judges (or insert here whichever county and state you live in). Most of us rarely appear in court, and whether we do or not, have little means of evaluating the performance of the judges on the slate. So we either don't vote or, worse, vote out of thin air, possibly doing more damage than those who don't vote. It's the rare voter who makes informed decisions about a bunch of judges she'll never meet.

This year, let's make that rare voter you and me. Happily, various local bar associations have done the homework for us, their volunteers spending long hours to determine which judges are, by wide consensus, qualified or unqualified. All you and I have to do is bring their findings with us into the voting booth and thereby cast meaningful votes.

Here, for example, is an email the Chicago Bar Association recently sent me:

The Association's Judicial Evaluation Committee has completed its evaluations for the November 4, 2008, General Election.

Of the 70 sitting judges running for retention in November, the JEC found two Illinois Appellate Court justices "Qualified" and 64 Circuit Court judges "Qualified" for retention. Four Circuit Court judges were given ratings of "Not Recommended" for retention. We urge you to vote NO for the retention judges found "Not Recommended."

Of the 34 candidates seeking election for Circuit Court positions, 31 were evaluated by the JEC. The Committee found four of those candidates "Highly Qualified," 25 "Qualified," and two "Not recommended.” Three candidates declined to participate in the evaluation process and pursuant to the JEC's Governing Resolution were automatically found "Not Recommended."

Our complete findings are available on the CBA's website and may be conveniently downloaded.

Please feel free to take this information with you on November 4, 2008 and remember to vote the Judicial Ballot. We urge you to vote for candidates found Qualified or Highly Qualified.

The CBA also thanks the many JEC committee members who volunteered so much of their time in order to complete the evaluation process.


There are many other fine bar associations whose electoral opinions you can also consult, and compare and contrast if you wish. I'm passing along the CBA's opinions not as the last word on the subject but as the first, a reminder that there are informed opinions out there available to anyone willing to take a moment to seek them out.

See you at the polls.

Incidentally, if you still haven't decided whom to support in the presidential election, I'm not even going to try to sway your vote, but congratulations on figuring out how to use a computer.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Calling all smarties

Anyone got a clue how to solve this?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Uno mas

Continuing with the Spanish-headlined culture postmortems and Flavorpill plugs:

1. Sandra Bernhard kicked all kinds of ass tonight at Steppenwolf, both generally and Sarah Palin's, Gwyneth Paltrow's, the Magnolia Bakery's and that of some unfortunate mope in the third row in particular. She's an acquired taste, but for those of us who've drunk the Kool-Aid, the woman could read the side of a cereal box and we'd enjoy it.

Her wry, world-weary, ultimately triumphant storytelling is what I love about her, that and the way she's become a showbiz success entirely on her own terms. But her earnest musical numbers (a Madonna medley segueing into "Little Red Corvette" with a splash of Whitesnake; an impassioned "Can't Fight This Feeling") are hard not to like.

2. Tomorrow night at 7, satirist John Hodgman (he plays the PC to Justin Long's Mac in Errol Morris' Apple ads) takes the Second City e.t.c. stage to read from his new completely made-up reference book, More Information Than You Require.

My Flavorpill preview is here.

3. There is no 3, but you're not supposed to have a list with just two items. Can we get a journalism professor up in here?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Hola, amigos

I know it's been a long time since I rapped at ya, but things have been heavy around here, ya know? I blew the tranny on my Camaro and I can't fix it until that dick Ron pays me back the $300 he owes me, so I been walking two miles to my dishwashing job at the Beer Barrel. Right when it starts getting cold out too. Major bummer, dudes.

Sorry, thought I was Jim Anchower for a minute there.

But it has in fact been four days since I last wrote, longer than I usually go between posts; sorry, both of you. Time that might have been spent blogging has been occupied with a rare weekend workday yesterday and an adventure helping a friend sell a car today; that's about as Anchowerish as my life actually gets.

And last night, I caught "This Country's F$cked," the big sold-out election spectacular at the Lakeshore Theater from my buds in the comedy troupes Schadenfreude and GayCo Productions. High-quality ha-ha from Chicago's most lovably hard-hitting cutups, plus they brought in a wide-ranging slew of guest performers such as beatbox artist Yuri Lane, standup comedian Ken Barnard, over-the-top cheerleading troupe The Power of Cheer, silly musical duo Mike & Duane, improv favorite Susan Messing and punk-rock choristers Blue Ribbon Glee Club.

It was very much in the old Andy Hardy "let's put on a show" spirit with nutty props, smart writing and good vibes all over the place, built on the foundation of confident old pros with a few million successful comedy shows under their belts.

All of the performers did a terrific job and the capacity crowds at both performances ate it up. I caught parts of both shows because I was one of a number of friends doing topical bits in the lobby before each show. After the nightcap, top local DJ Jesse de la Pena spun records until the wee hours, turning the Lakeshore stage into a drunken dance party. It was a great ride. If you missed it, blame yourself; I advised my literally tens of readers a couple weeks ago to check it out.

Those of you still in the market for seasonal in-your-face fabulosity have another intriguing option tomorrow evening: A Sandra Bernhard Halloween at the Steppenwolf Theatre. The title says it all. One diva, two shows.

My Flavorpill preview is here.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Origin stories

I've always gotten a kick out of origin stories. They're most commonly associated with comic book superheroes, the graphic novel Batman: Year One and the film it inspired, Batman Begins, being two good examples. M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable is a more subtle expression of the form.

More generally, I like learning about where commonplace things got their start. Take, for example, the musical category "rhythm and blues," a phrase so ingrained in our pop culture that it seems like it's always existed.

Not so, of course; someone thought it up one day. That man was legendary music producer Jerry Wexler, who died recently at age 91.

From his New York Times obituary:
By 1949 he was back in New York, married and working as a cub reporter for Billboard. At the time the black popular-music charts in the magazine were gathered under the rubric Race Records.

“We used to close the book on a Friday and come back to work on a Tuesday,” Mr. Wexler recalled in an interview last fall with the Web site PopEntertainment.com. “One Friday the editor got us together and said, ‘Listen, let’s change this from Race Records.’ A lot of people were beginning to find it inappropriate. ‘Come back with some ideas on Tuesday.’

“There were four guys on the staff,” he continued. “One guy said this and one guy said that, and I said, ‘Rhythm and blues,’ and they said: ‘Oh, that sounds pretty good. Let’s do that.’ In the next issue, that section came out as Rhythm and Blues instead of Race.”
The name he gave black popular music is in the first paragraph of his NYT obit, but Wexler enjoyed a long, influential career as an Atlantic Records executive with a deep connection to musicians.

He presided over seminal recording sessions by Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Dusty Springfield and Aretha Franklin as they pioneered the soul sound. He also helped shape the careers of Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Linda Ronstadt.

On the rock-and-roll side, Wexler produced records by Bob Dylan, Carlos Santana and Dire Straits and signed some band called Led Zeppelin.

Although none of us can be reduced to a sound bite, there are worse things than to be remembered as the guy who gave R&B its name. What's most interesting to me is the fact that someone did.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Attention voters

Illinois ones, anyway.

From my neighbor Nancy S., a retired college professor who knows everything:
I don’t usually do this, but circumstances compel me to remind you that there will be a referendum on the November 4th ballot asking whether the State of Illinois legislature should hold a CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION, to change the state’s constitution.

A political scientist I know, in fact several poli. scis plus some economists in this state, say it is NOT a good idea for the following reasons:

1. A constitutional convention would cost an estimated $100,000, which the state doesn’t have.

2. The constitution can be amended as is, without having to have an entire convention or new constitution.

3. There are rumored to be special interests on BOTH SIDES OF THE AISLE that want the convention, and it is doubtful that their wishes are in the best interests of the public at large.

4. Consider who would be in charge of the convention. It would be the same folks who couldn’t get their act together to provide a budget, and can’t get along with each other.

I’m just passing this information on to you. Vote as you wish.

NANCY

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Memo to Oliver Stone

Once was enough, thank you.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Chance meetings

My recent trip to NYC was made more enjoyable by a number of chance meetings.

When I go somewhere like New York, where I know a fair number of people from previous eras of my life, I never know whom to contact in advance. There's not nearly time enough to see all the people I'd like to, and in many cases I'm not currently in touch. Plus I'm usually going there with some sort of agenda (plans, tickets, events, etc.), making it that much harder to make the rounds.

The unfortunate result is that I usually end up skulking into and out of town without seeing anyone I'm not actually meeting there. I think about the others, go into paralysis by analysis, and for lack of ability to see everyone, I end up not seeing anyone.

This time was different. When I got there, I Facebook-posted that I'd just flown over the old and new Meadowlands. This more or less announced, "I'm in NYC," leading to a pleasant lunch with a friend I've known since we were in Miss Wilson's third grade class at South School in Glencoe, Illinois.

We later spent a summer together in La Rochelle, France on a high school trip, which we reminisced about over an appropriately continental déjeuner in a French cafe adjacent to Lincoln Center near her current job as a producer for ABC News. Not exactly a chance meeting but still pretty impromptu, occasioned by my choice of Facebook post.

Incidentally, having sat out the Friendster and MySpace revolutions, I only joined Facebook to play Scrabble across the nation, but after they killed the Scrabulous application, I found myself catching up with a lot of long-lost people. It's a nice, unobtrusive way to stay slightly in touch. As I learned last week, it can also be a useful tool to announce a trip somewhere and invite any interested locals to find a time to get together. I'm going to post something before my next visit and round out my calendar.

Next, chance meetings at the Conan O'Brien show. Thanks to the generosity of a Late Night comedy writer friend, I was lucky enough to stop by for a visit.

Guests of the show check in at the NBC Visitors Center in the lobby of 30 Rockefeller Plaza. When I did so the other day, the guy behind me in line was someone else I know from South School days. He's been working in the music business since college and manages Death Cab For Cutie, who were playing that night on the show. He introduced me to the A&R rep who'd signed the band to Atlantic Records, who in another coincidence went to college with my brother.

In the hallway that serves as the Conan backstage area, I had a brief conversation with the screenwriter J.J. Abrams, creator of Lost, Felicity and Alias. This wasn't a chance meeting in that I don't know the guy and he was booked on the show, but it was satisfying in that I got a little closure.

A year or two ago, when Abrams was a guest on the Howard Stern radio show, he was partway through telling the interesting story of how he got into show business when Stern abruptly interrupted him and changed the subject. Stern is a generally solid interviewer but with one major shortcoming: he's so afraid of boring his audience that he'll regularly cut off even a fascinating anecdote from an interviewee to jump to a new topic. This leaves the audience with a frustrated sense of incompletion, ironically annoying the listeners for fear of annoying them.

In J.J.'s case, he was more than holding up his end of the interview with some great stories, but Stern would rarely let him finish a thought before he'd interrupt. It was lively but disjointed, and in particular left one tale unfinished.

So with J.J. Abrams hanging around Conan's hallway waiting for his interview segment, I said a quick hello and asked him to finish the story he'd started on the air, which he happily did. I found him funny and engaging, much as he would be on the Conan show minutes later. He's also a fellow Stern listener, and as we discussed the Stern show across the street from its Sirius studio, guests were assembling a block away at Le Cirque for Howard's wedding.

The final chance meeting of the weekend took place at the New Yorker Festival Headquarters in Metropolitan Pavilion on 18th Street. After enjoying "The Campaign Trail," a panel discussion in which New Yorker writers Hendrik Hertzberg, Ryan Lizza and George Packer broke down the presidential race, I sat down on a couch to get my bearings.

The woman next to me said, "Ben Bass?" It was yet another childhood friend, a talented artist when we were in high school, now a professional illustrator and Parsons School of Design art professor living in Park Slope, Brooklyn. She was there to see a joint appearance by fellow artists Lynda Barry and Matt Groening. We were chummy in high school but fell out of touch since; thanks to the chance meeting, we got together a few days later to catch up.

Good times all around.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Community service


12-Year-Old Boy Scouts Volunteer To Give Women Breast Exams

Are you funny?

That is a question we must all answer for ourselves, or more accurately, others must answer for us.

Thanks to the Cartoon Caption Game at the 2008 New Yorker Festival, I recently had the chance to sway the opinions of those around me.  

Confused?  So am I.  Perhaps this story I wrote will explain what I mean.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Like a real reptile

One more Flavorpill plug real quick. I also chipped in a preview of this past weekend's North American Reptile Breeders Conference & Trade Show.

I don't know the first thing about reptiles, but when presented with the opportunity, I had to write about something called the North American Reptile Breeders Conference & Trade Show. Check it out here.

Sorry I forgot to mention it earlier if you'd have liked to go.

If you did go, enjoy your new iguana.

This country's what?

The SNL crew has found new life sending up America's prospective flight attendant-in-chief, but there's more acidic glee being produced on a local level.

If you're looking for an election-season diversion, there's a nice option courtesy of my buds in the comedy troupes Schadenfreude and GayCo Productions.  They're taking the stage at the Lakeshore Theater this Saturday and next with a little something they're calling "This Country's F$cked."  I couldn't have said it better myself.

My Flavorpill preview is here.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Apologies

As the Chicago Cubs entered the playoffs last year, I put my fandom on hold and went to New York City for the New Yorker Festival. It takes place in the first week of October, when Cubs fans are generally free to make other plans, but the 2007 Cubs surprised the baseball world by winning their division.

I had a great time at the 2007 Festival, but the baseball gods punished me for leaving town when it mattered the most. The Cubs were swept out of the first round by the Arizona Diamondbacks.

This year, same deal: I returned to New York for the Festival as the Cubs were again swept, this time by the Los Angeles Dodgers. You know, the same Dodgers who were five games under .500 on the morning of August 30? Those ones. Swept the 97-game-winning, no-hitter-throwing Cubs.

Adding insult to injury, the Chicago White Sox also got steamrolled by the admittedly superior Tampa Bay Rays, winning just one game as Tampa cruised. What do I have to do, skip next year's Festival so we can get back to a League Championship Series?

Unlike many Cubs fans, I like the White Sox just fine. I worked at both ballparks for eight years and see no reason not to enjoy the fact that ours is one of just four metropolitan areas in the nation (Chi, LA, NY, SF-Oak; OK, five if you count Wash DC-Balt) to have two baseball teams.

I subscribe to the Jerry Reinsdorf view: we're all Bears and Bulls fans here and there's no reason we can't pull for Chicago on the baseball field. Save your hate for the Cardinals, Twins, increasingly the Brewers, etc. As Reinsdorf says, he grew up a Brooklyn Dodgers fan but didn't root against the New York Giants, or even the Yankees unless they faced the Dodgers in the World Series.

In any event, Chicago's now back where we usually are, watching other cities contend for postseason glory. Quite a comedown from a week ago when the city was talking excitedly about a Cubs-Sox battle royal, or "Red Line Series" if you're trying to sell newspapers.

It reminds me of 2003, when the Cubs and the then-still-yearning Boston Red Sox both made it to their respective League Championship Series. As the Cubs took a 3-1 series lead against the Florida Marlins and Boston kept battling the Yankees late into the night in a seven-game classic, it looked for a few days as if one and maybe both of baseball's two most fabled losers would make the World Series. If that happened then one of them, at least in theory, would have to win. It would have been baseball nirvana and a possible sign of the apocalypse.

As you may remember, a funny thing happened on the way to the quorum and neither team got the job done. The Series was a relatively vanilla set-to between the upstart Marlins and the (yawn) New York Yankees. At least a young Florida hurler named Josh Beckett did a solid for his future employers by pitching the lights out and denying the Yankees their 27th World Series title.

This year's White Sox barely squeaked into the postseason but it was a rude awakening for the Cubs, the best team in the National League during the regular season, to be bounced from the playoffs so early and so decisively.

Why'd they get swept? Forget curses. As manager Lou Piniella bemoaned, they scored just 12 runs total in their six playoff games under his watch. That's not enough, especially when your pitchers serve up home run balls like Jeeves the butler and your defense falls apart (in one of this year's playoff games, which I mercifully had to miss, every Cubs infielder committed an error).

The 2008 North Siders had a magical ride an even 100 years after their previous championship and looked more like a team of destiny than any Cubs team I can remember. Their bumbling performance against L.A. in a short series doesn't mean they didn't accomplish a great deal this year, restoring hope and excitement much like another Chicagoan you may have heard about lately. The Cubs remain loaded and with a little luck they should contend for the next few years.

Can someone please call Si Newhouse, or at least David Remnick, and get this Festival deal moved to November?

p.s. No, I don't really think my travel plans had anything to do with these outcomes, but something's gotta fill all this white space, so for the sake of an angle I'll extend the vanity that named this blog after myself and take the rap for the results of ten baseball games I had nothing to do with.

What the heck, I'll also apologize for the high price of gasoline, the Wall Street meltdown and global warming, but I'm not taking the blame for Sarah Palin. You have to draw the line somewhere.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Tasting the flavor

Yesterday I mentioned Flavorpill, the popular culture guide (ambiguity intentional) for which I write event previews.

Right now I'm in Flavorpill's SoHo headquarters at Broadway and Houston, next to the Puma store, across the street from the Puma store, down the street from that store that sells all the Pumas.

Flavorpill is a big deal here in NYC, where getting an event listed is something of a coup. It's lower-profile but also respected in Chicago, where my fellow writers and I are holding up the midwestern end of things.

If you're in NYC, Chi, LA, London, SF or Miami and looking for something fun to do, check it out.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Buddies

I'm in New York City. Spent the weekend at the New Yorker Festival, the magazine's annual culture celebration (by "the magazine," of course, I mean Cat Fancy).

It's an annual treat with a different event lineup every year, plus a chance to catch up with Festival friends, track down long-lost high school buddies and renew ties with another great city.

But Chicago is always close to my heart. If you're there and looking for something to do around town, check out the solid new revival of Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, now playing at the Water Tower Drury Lane Theatre on Michigan Avenue.

I attended the opening night for Flavorpill and enjoyed it; you will too, especially if like me you're into the music of the beloved Texas rock 'n roll pioneer. You know, Jessica Simpson.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Who killed the electric car?

Not my man and fellow Northwestern alum Stephen Colbert.

For this week's edition of Friday Live, in honor of his Emmy win and appearance at this weekend's New Yorker Festival (which I'm attending, and I hope you are too), the signature intelligent buffoonery of a Second City alum:

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Historic homers

The Chicago White Sox have recently contributed a few choice nuggets to that beloved chapter of the baseball record book covering home run trivia.

On Monday, the Sox played Detroit in a rain-delayed 162nd and final regular season game. It was a must-win as they trailed the Minnesota Twins by a half game in the division standings with a playoff spot at stake. All-world rookie Alexei Ramirez delivered yet again, breaking a tense 2-2 tie with a grand slam that put the Sox into a first-place tie as the season ended.

Not only did the blast ensure that Ramirez won't have to pick up a dinner check in Chicago for the next few years, it made a little history. Ramirez (endearingly nicknamed the "Cuban Missile") set the major league record for grand slams by a rookie, with four. Four! It also tied the club record for individual grand slams in a season (Albert Belle, 1997) and set a new club record for team grand slams in a season (12).

The four grand slams put an exclamation point on Alexei's outstanding rookie year (.290, 21 HR, 77 RBI), plus the kid can field his position like a rock star, specifically a rock star who is an excellent baseball player. Skinny, fast, slick fielder, quick wrists, home run power, Caribbean, he's pretty much a young Alfonso Soriano with better leather and speed. I don't know who's the favorite in the American League rookie of the year race, but you could do a lot worse than Alexei Ramirez.

Back to home runs. By beating the Tigers, the White Sox finished the season tied for their division lead, earning a one-game playoff with Minnesota. Teams contending for playoff spots and titles will often informally pick a respected veteran or two who've never won a championship, and dedicate their playoff campaigns to those senior members.

This year's Sox have two such guys, and they know a thing or two about home runs with 1152 between them. Jim Thome and the recently acquired Ken Griffey Jr. are future Hall of Famers who can afford to buy out Tiffany & Co.'s jewelry case, but World Series rings must be earned. They've both played on good teams but never won it all, and as they enter their late 30s this could be their last chance.

Two of the 2008 White Sox who are playing for Thome and Griffey, are Thome and Griffey. It was Thome who put the team on his enormous back in the one-game tiebreaker and clubbed a mammoth solo home run to straightaway center field; Griffey followed with a near miss off the outfield wall. Thome's cannon shot broke a scoreless tie for the game's only run, winning the pitchers' duel and putting the Sox into the playoffs. Veteran sluggers are doing it for themselves.

I was really happy for Thome, a guy who's given everything to good teams and bad, but despite many individual accolades, a player still looking for something more career-defining than his 500th home run. He's just missed winning a ring a few times, signing with these White Sox a few weeks after they won the 2005 World Series. His Cleveland teams of the 1990s were de facto All-Star teams that deserved a title or two, but let the World Series slip away in 1997 against the upstart expansion Florida Marlins.

As Thome strode to the plate in the seventh for his fateful home run, it occurred to me for the first time all day that it would be nice to see him hit one out. His shot was gratifying; you can't help but admire and pull for a guy like that. He's a somewhat local kid made good (raised in Peoria, college at Illinois Central) and by all accounts one of the most humble, considerate people ever to put on a uniform. A few years ago the Tribune Company surveyed all major leaguers to determine the game's Best Teammate. Thome not only won, he earned nearly three times as many votes as the second-place finisher.

Alexei Ramirez and Jim Thome recently hit memorable home runs when the White Sox became just the sixth team in major league history to hit four consecutive home runs in one game. Thome, Paul Konerko, Ramirez and Juan Uribe went deep back-to-back-to-back-to-back on August 14 against the Kansas City Royals.

Singular events like this occur infrequently but regularly in baseball, and for casual observers like me they're a big part of the enjoyment of being a fan. They capture the imagination, invoke the sport's history, make for compelling reading and cement the bond between fellow enthusiasts.

Take this one record, for consecutive home runs by a team. As interesting as the remarkable feat itself is the fact that six teams have done it, but no team has hit five straight homers. Why is that? Who knows?

What we do know is that certain records seem to have a threshold that can be matched more easily than exceeded. Off the top of my head I can recite the players who have homered in a record eight straight games (Dale Long, Don Mattingly, Griffey Jr.) and those who have thrown a record 20 strikeouts in a nine-inning game (Roger Clemens twice and Kerry Wood; Randy Johnson did it in an extra-inning game). To this day, no one's homered in nine straight games or fanned 21 batters in nine innings. That these records keep getting tied but not broken is fascinating to me.

There are other interesting minutiae strewn around these records. For example, here are the six teams to pull off the home run fourpeat:

Braves, June 8, 1961
(Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron, Joe Adcock, Frank Thomas)

Indians, July 31, 1963
(Woodie Held, Pedro Ramos, Tito Francona, Larry Brown)

Twins, May 2, 1964
(Tony Oliva, Bob Allison, Jimmie Hall, Harmon Killebrew)

Dodgers, Sept. 18, 2006
(Jeff Kent, J.D. Drew, Russell Martin, Marlon Anderson)

Red Sox, April 22, 2007
(Manny Ramirez, J.D. Drew, Mike Lowell, Jason Varitek)

White Sox, August 14, 2008
(Jim Thome, Paul Konerko, Alexei Ramirez, Juan Uribe)

Aside from all the current and future Hall of Famers among these hitters, plus Terry Francona's dad, note that J.D. Drew appeared in two of these six quartets, playing for two different teams in consecutive months of regular season play. Admittedly, Drew has played on some stacked lineups, but the odds of his repeating in consecutive-homer foursomes have to be minuscule. He did it though.

Note also the erratic timing of the rare feat ("homer quads," as my poker buddies might call it). It didn't happen once in the first four decades after the dead ball era. Then it happened three times in three years. Then it went dormant again like some statistical cicada for four more decades, even sleeping through the steroid era. And now it's happened three more times in two years. That is so weird.

Parenthetically, horse racing's Triple Crown has a similarly uneven distribution, with seven Triple Crown winners in the 1930s and 1940s, then a 25-year lull, then three more between 1973 and 1978, then none for the last 30 years.

Other baseball records look unbeatable for reasons having to do with the structure of the sport itself. Take, for example, one of the all-time baseball trivia questions, the two grand slams that St. Louis Cardinal Fernando Tatis hit in one inning on April 23, 1999 at Dodger Stadium.

How many players even get to bat twice in an inning with the bases loaded both times? That alone is exceedingly rare. Tatis not only got that chance, he caught lightning in a bottle by homering in both such at-bats, a feat that may never be duplicated and is a virtual certainty never to be bested.

More Tatisiana from this handy source:
  • Tatis also set the big-league record for RBI in an inning, with eight (big surprise).
  • Incredibly, he hit both his grand slams off the same pitcher, Chan Ho Park. How do you leave that guy on the mound after he gives up a grand slam and lets the opposition bat around? And let him face the guy who hit the first one out? I could see it maybe if you were trying to save your bullpen during a pennant race, but it happened in April. Apparently the Dodgers' pen was already worn out a few weeks into the season.
  • Tatis became the second National League player to hit two grand slams in one game; Tony Cloninger did it for the Atlanta Braves. And he was a pitcher! Carlos Zambrano, eat your heart out.
  • Park became the second pitcher to give up two grand slams in the same inning. Pittsburgh's Bill Phillips also earned the dubious distinction 109 years earlier, on August 16, 1890. But Phillips gave them up to different batters.
  • Guess who else homered for the Cardinals on the day Tatis made history? Yep, the omnipresent J.D. Drew.