Thursday, February 28, 2008

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

On humility

It's axiomatic: the more humble and appreciative the award-show speech, the more likeable the honoree.

Take Sunday night's Oscar telecast, where the most memorable and touching speeches came from Original Song winners Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova from the sleeper hit Once. They were huge sentimental favorites going in, as their small movie—shot in three weeks on two camcorders—had charmed critics and audiences alike. Their song "Falling Slowly" typified the film's moving story of two itinerant musicians who meet and forge a musical relationship.

By the end of the show, which featured performances of all five nominated songs, they were also favorites to the casual viewer. Not only was "Falling Slowly" distinctive in its simplicity, it was up against three trite, schmaltzy Stephen Schwartz tunes from the Disney kiddie flick Enchanted and a huh?-inducing song by a cast of thousands from the Keri Russell vehicle August Rush, which for all I know will be coming out in 2009.

When "Falling Slowly" got the nod, it was an emotional release for audience and performers alike. Hansard, a longtime indie rocker and the leader of the band The Frames, gushed his thanks, incredulous that his path had taken him to the Academy Awards. He was so achingly sincere that Jon Stewart ad-libbed his funniest line immediately afterward: "Wow, that guy is so arrogant." Irglova, Hansard's female lead and musical collaborator, also spoke movingly of the struggles independent artists face.

Elsewhere in small-budget movies with fiercely loyal followings, who wasn't charmed by Diablo Cody, the Chicago-born stripper turned screenwriter whose wise, funny Juno script won the Oscar for Original Screenplay? "This is for the writers," she graciously said.

The inverse of the above axiom is also true. Take, for example, a Grammy acceptance speech delivered a few weeks ago by one Kanye West. I didn't watch the Grammys, but heard West's speech replayed in its entirety when it was singled out for ridicule on the Howard Stern show.

In about one minute of lectern time, West managed to (i) observe that within the space of a few years, he had come to own this particular Grammy category; (ii) chide fellow Chicago rapper Common for being so unwise as to release a record during the same year, suggesting that this misstep prevented Common from contending for a Grammy of his own; (iii) argue preëmptively that he deserved the night's biggest honor, Album of the Year, as much as Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson did; (iv) complain that it was in poor taste for the Grammys to play speech-curtailing wrap-up music as he was thanking his late mother (which might have been a fair point had West not already squandered his allotted speech time on gratuitous boasting, which also waived his claim to the moral high ground and made his lecture about good taste hilarious); and just in case anyone hadn't gotten the message yet, (v) finish with another modest pronouncement: "We run this."

What a tool. How could someone lauded as a modern-day street poet be so completely lacking in self-awareness? Even by the standards of a major recording artist, his arrogance is impressive. When you're in the same room as the collected pop music establishment, including a surviving Beatle and hundreds of professionals whose careers have spanned decades, it might be nice to muster a little humility. Or if you can't, find the grace to pretend to.

A man whose ass has been kissed so thoroughly in the last few years that it must surely by now be concave, West has apparently lost sight of Public Enemy's timeless admonition: "Don't believe the hype."

Happily, not every big-timer acts that way. Look at George Clooney, one of the few celebrities on a pedestal even taller than Kanye West's. As accomplished and popular as Clooney is, he's somehow managed to tune out all the praise; his trip down the red carpet was a study in comportment and self-assurance. The guy is unfailingly polite and charming, quick to give credit to others, with a wink and a self-deprecating joke always at the ready. Anyone can luck into becoming rich and famous; it's Clooney's reaction to his own circumstances that really makes him a star.

And to think I gave props to Kanye West in this space mere weeks ago. Although I occasionally revisit and tweak earlier posts, I'm leaving my Kanye shout-out in its original state as an object lesson to myself, a reminder not to mistake fame for class. Apparently I lost sight of the wisdom once imparted by Das Efx: one must check oneself before one wrecks oneself.

Kanye West would do well to heed the same advice.

Monday, February 25, 2008

My heavens!

Such language!

Feisty stuff from Craiglist:

Thursday, February 21, 2008


In which we cordially call attention to items of note.

1. Comedy.

The Upright Citizens Brigade has quietly launched a website featuring original comedy material from its own theaters in New York City and Los Angeles. will offer "sketches, series, music videos, live performances, pranks and f'ed up found footage" from the stalwart Chicago-bred troupe. The site is in beta mode, featuring fresh videos every day and a new original short every Tuesday.

Emails from Matt Besser are rare, and intelligible ones rarer still, but this one I understood.

2. Film.

Former New Trier Township High School B.M.O.C. and all-around good guy Jason Weiss has produced a feature film called Humboldt County starring Peter Bogdanovich, Fairuza Balk, Jeremy Strong and Frances Conroy. The movie takes place in the California county of the same name, where a 1960s counterculture lifestyle persists among the coastal redwoods.

Attention Austinites and friends thereof: Humboldt County will premiere in the opening slot at the South By Southwest Film Festival. Screenings are March 7, 11 and 13. Congratulations, Jason.

3. Words.

When Bill Wyman lived in Chicago, I found his Chicago Reader pop music column,
, dependably entertaining and informative. He was also a founding co-host of the long-running radio show Sound Opinions, sparring good-naturedly with the Sun-Times' Jim DeRogatis as the show made its way around the FM dial. In person, Bill was a lovable presence on the local music scene; it was our loss when he left Chicago to become arts editor at SF Weekly. He went on to write and edit for Slate, Salon, and National Public Radio.

Bill has resurrected Hitsville as a blog, offering "ongoing commentary on The Wire, the brilliant HBO series that, in its fifth season, has gone totally off the rails; attacks on the Grammys, R. Kelly and many others; lots of analysis on the decline of the record industry, most recently a discussion of a proposal to compensate the labels by adding a fee to your internet bill; essays on There Will Be Blood and many other movies and CDs; and lots of other things."

It currently features an ongoing conversation with Damien Bona, author of Inside Oscar, as we count down to Sunday's big awards show. Like the UCB site, Bill's blog is in beta mode en route to eventual world domination. He's a perceptive observer of the pop culture scene; check it out.

Note: The Bill Wyman in question is not the former Rolling Stones bassist of the same name, which is actually an interesting story.

4. Music.

The Spares, a tuneful Americana outfit, headline Martyrs this Saturday at 7pm. What's new with you, Spares? "Our CD Beautiful and Treacherous Thing got great reviews in publications like UK roots magazine Maverick ('hauntingly gorgeous'); Chicago weekly New City ('simple, aching, and hearty'); and music magazine Smother (Editor's Pick: 'The band mixes alt-country twang with gritty roots rock and urbanized Americana for a sound somewhere in heaven between Gram Parsons and Alison Krauss')."

And Wednesday evening, Feb. 27, a longtime Chicago tradition returns as Thomas Dunning blows into town, bringing his Hoot Night with him. Tom's casually maintained Hoot Night page is here; my Flavorpill preview is here.

5. Food.

Sorry to all the Monte Carlo card-counters and Russian oil billionaires in my readership; this one's all about good old Chicago too. To celebrate Chicago Restaurant Week, which begins tomorrow, dozens of popular local eateries are slashing prices on three-course prix-fixe meals. Learn more about it here.

Mangez bien, les mecs. Bon appétit.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Medill profs speak out

Sixteen faculty members at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism have released a public statement about dean John Lavine's controversial use of unattributed quotes in columns he wrote for the Medill alumni magazine:

Statement from the Medill Faculty
February 19, 2008

We, the undersigned members of the faculty of the Medill School of Journalism, are deeply troubled by Dean John Lavine's use of unidentified sources in his columns for Medill, the school's alumni magazine. We also are concerned about the public questions that have arisen regarding the ethics of attribution and sourcing, and commend the Daily Northwestern and columnist David Spett for raising these issues.

Public discussion about this matter has moved beyond the issue of a quote attributed to an unidentified student to a question of the dean's veracity, specifically whether the quote at issue was fabricated. Regrettably, much of this discussion has itself been anonymous, posted on the Internet by unidentified sources, an act that if predictable is nonetheless unprofessional. We speak publicly, and on the record.

The dean could, if he wished, put an end to what has become an embarrassment to Northwestern and to Medill. We call on him to do so immediately. As the Chicago Sun-Times said in a Feb. 15 editorial, "With his and the school's integrity on the line, the easiest thing for Lavine to do now is produce his notes or have the IT department retrieve that deleted e-mail to allay concerns over whether the unattributed quote is real."

This matter has become a crisis for the school. The principles of truthfulness and transparency in reporting are at the core of Medill's professional and academic mission. The dean's Feb. 14 memorandum in which he offered his explanation of events to Medill faculty is at best inadequate. It says that the quote at issue is essentially the same as that used by a student in an online video, and that the quote at issue is therefore a "fact." But of course the language used in the video is not the same as that in the contested quote, nor is the speaker in the video the unidentified source of the contested quote. Finally, the student in the video is talking about a different Medill class than the one that is the subject of the contested quote.

It is wrong to argue that the forum in which the questionable quote was used, the school's alumni magazine, is not subject to the same standards as other publication venues. Accuracy and truthfulness are non-negotiable requirements for any material prepared for publication in any forum, including in marketing and public relations. Indeed, the defense that Medill magazine is a public relations vehicle and therefore held to a lesser standard than other forms of publication is an insult to Medill's Integrated Marketing Communications faculty and staff, who are bound by the same Integrity Code, in all its particulars, as are the school's journalism students and faculty. As important, Medill magazine speaks directly to the many audiences to whom Medill owes its greatest fealty: students and alumni of the school's journalism and integrated marketing communications programs; our students' parents; the dozens of media firms around the United States and the world where our students take internships; donors to the school's academic and professional programs; employers and practitioners in both journalism and marketing communications. All of these audiences deserve a more complete accounting than the dean has thus far provided. We call on him to do so immediately.

Mary Coffman, Associate Professor
Douglas Foster, Associate Professor
Eric Ferkenhoff, Lecturer
Loren Ghiglione, Professor
George Harmon, Associate Professor
Sharon Kornely, Senior Lecturer
Craig L. LaMay, Associate Professor
Donna Leff, Professor
Arsenio Oloroso, Lecturer
Marcel Pacatte, Lecturer
David Protess, Professor
Larry Stuelpnagel, Assistant Professor
Mindy Trossman, Assistant Professor
Mary Ann Weston, Associate Professor Emerita
Charles Whitaker, Assistant Professor
Jon Ziomek, Assistant Professor Emeritus

The statement's cover letter to Dean Lavine:

February 19, 2008

Dean John Lavine
Medill School of Journalism
Evanston, IL

Dear John,

With this letter you will find a statement signed by several members of the school faculty concerning the news coverage of and commentary about the quotes you used in your Medill magazine columns. We are providing the statement to you, President Bienen and Provost Linzer several hours before we provide it to the news media.

The signatories to this letter have discussed how best to make our concerns known given the scope of this controversy. We have chosen to make the statement public for three reasons. First, this is not an internal matter but a public one. At this point, you have conducted an audio-taped interview with David Spett of the Daily Northwestern, two interviews with the Chicago Tribune, one on National Public Radio, and, most important, sent an e-mail message to the entire Medill faculty about the controversy.

Second, this controversy is not a faculty grievance and cannot be treated as one. If it were, the appropriate course of action would be first to request a private audience with you, with President Bienen and Provost Linzer. All the signatories to the statement believe that there should be such a meeting, and as soon as possible. But again, this matter is now very public. It is not an internal issue subject to the normal requirements of faculty governance.

Third, our students and alumni have thus far been left alone to comment on this troubling situation. We are journalism educators who have professional experience with and scholarly knowledge about the use of anonymous sources. To continue to keep our views to ourselves will justifiably be viewed as unacceptable by the young people we have taught and continue to teach. It would be unconscionable to maintain faculty silence on such a widely covered public issue.


Craig L. LaMay, Associate Professor
Donna Leff, Professor
David Protess, Professor


Sunday, February 17, 2008

Professor, teach thyself

Kudos to David Spett, a Medill senior at Northwestern University and columnist at the Daily Northwestern, for applying his classroom journalism lessons to the j-school environment itself.

Our story takes place at the Medill School of Journalism, where a new dean has been making big changes. Long one of the nation's leading journalism schools, Medill has spent decades grounding students in the traditional tools of the trade. (Tell the reader who, what, where, when, and how; write it pyramid-style; save your personal slant for the op-ed page; and even when your mother says she loves you, check your sources.)

The recently installed Medill dean, John Lavine, believes that journalism training alone is insufficient to prepare students to compete in a new-media world. Citing the gradual financial decline of the newspaper industry as evidence of a paradigm shift, he overhauled the school's curriculum last year to emphasize a softer cross-disciplinary approach incorporating quasi- (or more accurately, non-) journalistic disciplines like marketing, public relations and advertising.

Specifically, he has decreed that students develop proficiency in creating Web sites, video games, podcasts, advertisements and multimedia content, in class time that would otherwise be spent learning to report and write stories. Students must also learn to poll their target audience, as a focus group might, in order to try to determine the tastes and desires of their prospective consumers, whom he calls "customers."

Lavine has elevated his "Integrated Marketing Communications" program to equal importance with journalism education, in turn demoting journalism to a, rather than the, focus of the school. See, for example, the above logos taken from a current Northwestern website, in which Journalism, like Integrated Marketing Communications, is a mere subset of the Medill School.

His conception of a news audience as a commercial customer to be satisfied, rather than a populace to be informed by objective reportage, reflects his misguided thinking. A "customer"-oriented approach to journalism erodes the time-honored Chinese wall between the journalistic and business sides of any news-gathering organization, a wall that must stand whether the news is conveyed via tickertape, newsprint, radio, television, website, podcast, RSS feed, or otherwise. Without the wall, there can be no credibility; without credibility, there is eventually no audience.

As one of the many online commenters to this story observed, asking the public what news it wants to read will result in more Anna Nicole and less Darfur coverage; do parents feed small children only what they want to eat?

Underscoring the threat Lavine represents to Medill's long standing as a bastion of traditional journalistic values, he is also interested in changing the school's name from "Medill School of Journalism" to simply "Medill." This idea has drawn heavy scorn from current students and alumni. Although university trustees would have to approve an official name change, the school's website has already been overhauled, with banner art now reading "Medill at Northwestern University."

The perversity of the name-change idea is that the word Medill, in and of itself, connotes a journalism school. It's named after Joseph Medill, a long-forgotten Chicago Tribune editor, but to those who know it, "Medill" means "Northwestern's j-school." Take away the journalism school, as Lavine is doing, and what's left? "Medill" has meaning only to the extent that the place has already spent decades building a reputation and goodwill. With the school's academic mission now in flux, calling it simply "Medill" will be increasingly feckless over time; the antecedent to the name will gradually weaken as memories fade that Medill once stood for teaching journalism.

Current Medill professors have anonymously voiced disgust for the growing emphasis on marketing at their journalism school, but with their jobs on the line, have little latitude to make public waves. Other Northwestern professors have been less reticent, as the university-wide faculty senate recently blasted the school's administration for denying Medill faculty a voice in the direction of the school and questioning Lavine's mandate for change. The man whose opinion matters most, University president Henry Bienen, is in Lavine's corner, recently extending his contract despite the faculty censure.

Happily, not every dean of a leading j-school shares Lavine's vision. The dean of Columbia University's journalism school, the New Yorker staff writer Nicholas Lemann, says the marketing-driven approach is "not going to happen at our school, not on my watch."

The radical reëvaluation of Medill's mission has also drawn howls of protest from current students and observers who feel that the new direction threatens the school's hallowed emphasis on basic journalistic standards.

Dean Lavine tried to calm this roiling cauldron of discontent by writing two letter columns for the school's alumni magazine that included three anonymous quotes purportedly from current Medill students. The quotes included such Pollyannaish happy talk as "I sure felt good about this class. It is one of the best I've taken" from a Medill junior, and "This is the most exciting my education has been."

That brings us to David Spett, the Medill senior. The quotes raised his eyebrows for a number of reasons: the stilted phrasing so unlike the speech of today's college students; the use of 'sure' as an adverb, a colloquialism associated with Lavine himself; and the fact that the quotes were presented without attribution for no apparent reason, a departure from standard journalistic procedure.

Further, the quotes were entirely self-serving. In Medill's tense environment, where so much change has been foisted upon the school, anonymous quotes heaping lavish praise onto the controversial new curriculum, proffered by the very dean who had pushed it, in a magazine written for and mailed to vocally upset alumni, seemed rather tidy.

Having just been granted his own column at the Daily Northwestern, Spett put it to good use. He figured out from which class Lavine had claimed to collect the quote from the unnamed Medill junior. Spett went to every one of the 29 students in the class, including all five juniors, and they all denied providing the quote in question.

Spett brought his concerns to Dean Lavine, who could not identify any of his student interviewees. He suggested that the quotes had come from student email messages to him, but could not produce such messages. (Lavine later told the Chicago Tribune that he couldn't remember whether the quotes came from either emails or his own handwritten notes of person-to-person conversations, and that he could not produce any of these.)

What Lavine did do, in his recorded interview with Spett, was rationalize that in a letter column in an alumni magazine, as opposed to a hard news story, a lesser journalistic standard applied. He suggested that tying specific words to specific interviewees was less important in a casual article, and that it was acceptable to present as actual quotes, remarks which summarized the gist of what he claimed students had told him.

This from the head of a school where students can and do receive a zero grade for failing to source every quote in a news story, a school that, like most journalism schools and newspapers, strongly discourages the use of unattributed quotes without a compelling reason to do so.

In a week when Roger Clemens took an oath before Congress and presented pitiful denials in the face of damning evidence, Lavine's explanation fell far short of what one would hope to hear from a journalism school dean. It sounded like hogwash.

Spett wrote up the story for the Daily Northwestern and all hell broke loose. Within hours it was a major story, receiving coverage including the following:

NU journalism dean taken to task [Chicago Tribune]
Medill Student Tracks Dean's Anonymous Sources [NPR's All Things Considered]
Journalism dean quizzed on unnamed sources [UPI]
Did Medill dean make up quote touting ad class? [Chicago Sun-Times]
Northwestern Columnist Questions Dean's Anonymous Sources [U.S. News & World Report]
Journalism 101 [Chicago Tribune editorial]
Medill dean needs to verify quote to set an example [Chicago Sun-Times editorial]

And it's not just Spett who smelled a rat; various students, unnamed faculty, alumni and outside observers share his concerns.

David Spett's spadework was impressive; still in j-school and the kid already seems qualified to teach investigative journalism. It's the dean who seems to need an ethics refresher course.

It's encouraging to see that, despite the current dean's best efforts, Medill is still teaching its students to sleuth out a story. I also admire Spett's (perhaps self-protective) restraint in not calling out the dean as a fraud, choosing in his original column and subsequent interviews simply to present the facts and let others reach their own conclusions.

By coincidence, I actually once interviewed an NU dean too. When a new dean came aboard during my second year at Northwestern's law school, I profiled him for the weekly student newspaper. Our conversation was pleasant, if unremarkable; we talked about faculty recruiting, the physical plant, and so on. Of course, our dean was not in the process of subverting the school's academic mission and threatening its national reputation, nor had he published dubious anonymous quotes about how amazing his curriculum was, so there was no Woodward-style exposé lurking beneath the surface (or if there was, I missed it, in which case maybe I should have gone to Medill).

Although Spett's gotcha moment makes for a juicy story, this frustrating episode will come as little consolation for the many who are appalled by Lavine's ongoing attack on Medill's tradition of teaching pure journalism. Where the question was once whether Medill's new dean might lose sight of the line between journalism and PR, the question is now whether he is aware that the line exists.

As for where the Medill School of Journalism (that's still the name, however increasingly inaccurate) is headed, I have a few suggestions for Dean Lavine:

1. Marketing is a polite word for sales. It is by its nature a business discipline, not a journalistic one, and already taught at every business school. If Northwestern must provide training in market research and the art of the press release, it should occur not at Medill but at Kellogg.

2. Northwestern has already gotten trendy enough lately, shuttering its unfashionable dental school and rechristening the School of Speech the "School of Communication." A program called "Integrated Marketing Communications" sounds like an academic Frankenstein's monster concocted in the lab of overcaffeinated educational consultants. Even setting aside questions of the program's academic legitimacy, the name has got to go. As you marketing guys might say, it cheapens Northwestern's brand.

3. Students come to Medill each year willing to make the sacrifices necessary to pay $40,000 a year to learn how to write for newspapers, magazines, or broadcast. Forcing them to spend time learning to create advertisements and flash video is worse than an insult, it's a scandal. They are quite aware that Leo Burnett and Columbia College are down the road; they chose to attend Medill so they could learn journalism.

4. You're right that newspaper company stock prices are falling and newsrooms are cutting staffs. A more appropriate response to these sad facts would be to incorporate new media in your journalism program, as Columbia has done, and perhaps to reëvaluate how many students should be admitted each year. Selling out your school's entire mission is a panicked overreaction to changing market forces. With fewer professional journalists out there working, we need well-trained ones more than ever.

5. Oh, and um... if you can't come up with a more satisfying explanation of how you didn't fabricate three quotes in a university publication, you should be fired.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Sulzbergers, Bass change world

Thanks to the withering pressure brought by the combined power of the New York Times and Ben Bass and Beyond, Facebook has been shamed into relaxing its draconian membership cancellation policy:

Quitting Facebook Gets Easier
[New York Times]

Giving equal credit to the Gray Lady and this blog reminds me of an old chestnut from the Michael Jordan era. One night in 1990, Jordan caught fire and torched the Cleveland Cavaliers for a career-high 69 points in an overtime win on the road. After the game, his teammate Stacey King told reporters, "I'll always remember this as the night when Michael Jordan and I combined for 70 points."

Tip credit: Bree G.

Quel scandale!

Did you hear about Sarah Silverman and Matt Damon?

Monday, February 11, 2008

Facebook fans, take note

Today's most-emailed NYT article:
How Sticky Is Membership on Facebook? Just Try Breaking Free
[New York Times]

And elsewhere in depressing news:
Fliers find mileage programs not as rewarding
[Crain's Chicago Business]

As if that weren't enough:
Number of fluent Arabic-speaking FBI agents on September 11, 2001:  8
Number of fluent Arabic-speaking FBI agents today:  9
[New Yorker]

Sunday, February 10, 2008

From 848 to 30 Rock

Chicago Tribune pop music critic Greg Kot and Chicago Sun-Times defensive tackle Jim DeRogatis, the co-hosts of NPR's Sound Opinions, will appear tomorrow on NBC's Late Night With Conan O'Brien. In a poor man's version of a Siskel and Ebert appearance on The Tonight Show the day after the Oscars, Greg and Jim will post-mortem the Grammys.

Suggested honoree for a Grammy lifetime achievement award: Cactus Chef Playing "We Didn't Start the Fire" on a Flute.

Tip credit: Justin B. and Jeff D., separately

Friday, February 8, 2008

Why New England lost

Yeah, I know, there are a lot of reasons: the Giants' methodical ball-control offense kept the Pats' high-flying attack off the field; their swarming defense produced three-and-outs and prevented Tom Brady from finding a rhythm; Eli Manning's historic two-minute drill; James Tyree's miraculous helmet catch; Steve Smith's clutch reception and first down; Plaxico Burress' finishing skills.

But for the sake of conversation, let's massively oversimplify things, apply some Palsgraf-style but-for causation, and boil the whole NFL season down to one play. Here's as good an explanation as any why New England's quest for a 19-0 season fell short.

During my summers home from college, I used to play basketball at the Deerfield Multiplex, where the chance to watch the Bulls practice during the NBA playoffs was a big draw. Once the Bulls got off the court, we'd get on.

The hoop crowd generally included a handful of sportswriters and pro athletes, and the courtside conversation was mostly about sports. Sitting on the wood floor between games one day, a columnist who'd played some college football explained to me the difference between wide receivers and cornerbacks.

The men who play the two positions are physically interchangeable in most ways: speedy, lean, explosive, good leapers, often former high school or college track stars. The difference, my colleague said, is that the guys in that talent pool who have good hands become wide receivers, and the guys who don't, play defensive back.

Catching passes is a rare skill, the argument goes, but knocking a ball to the ground, any fast guy can do. Since it's tougher to make a catch than to break a play up, the speedsters who can catch are made into WRs, and the fast guys with butterfingers become CBs.

While Eli Manning did play a decent game and engineer an exciting final drive, he hardly displayed the precision passing or game-management skills of, say, his older brother. He underthrew receivers, let the play clock expire for a penalty, and floated a few passes where players on either team could catch them.

His ugliest pass came early in the final drive, an attempt so far from a completion that a receiver probably blew a route. With 1:18 left in the fourth quarter, Manning threw a ball toward the right sideline nowhere near any teammate. The closest player, Asante Samuel of the Patriots, had a clean look at it, but the ball glanced off his fingertips and dropped harmlessly to the turf.

Samuel knew he'd muffed a game-ending pick. His anguished on-field reaction said it all: an interception would have sealed the deal. With a four-point lead and the ball, and 75 seconds left in the game, Brady would have taken a knee a few times and run out the clock. 

But it was not to be. Given new life, the Giants made the most of their opportunity. On the very next play, Manning pulled his Houdini act, somehow escaping a sack and hitting Tyree for his dramatic downfield catch.  Moments later, the winning touchdown. Thus did Samuel and New England let Super Bowl XLII slip away, and with it their bid for undefeated immortality.

I felt bad for Asante Samuel. His mistake was understandable: he's a DB, not a WR. If Samuel had the hands to catch passes, he'd be a wideout making big plays (and probably a lot more money). Of course, if he were that guy, he wouldn't have been in the defensive backfield in the first place.

Bottom line, he's not. And that is why his team lost.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Gave my regards to Broadway

So why did I go to New York City the other week? Got an offer I couldn't refuse. My old friend Seth Traxler, an investor in a number of Broadway shows this season, generously invited me to join him at the opening night of David Mamet's much-anticipated new political comedy, November. Who was I to say no?

Seth and I flew out together and grabbed lunch at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station, a Manhattan landmark that had escaped my notice. Established in 1913, the same year as the current Grand Central Terminal (as the train station is officially known), the subterranean seafood spot is familiar to many as the backdrop for the current opening credits of Saturday Night Live. In the words of Hank Kingsley, the Oyster Bar isn't from the old school, it's from the school they tore down to build the old school.

Checking into the Parker Meridien in midtown Manhattan, I was dimly aware of an older guy crowding me at the hotel reception counter. He was wearing one of those "Choppers" shirts, either Orange County Choppers or West Coast Choppers (are these the same thing? or choppers rivals? I neither know nor care enough to Google it). The guy was impatiently leaning over my shoulder, but I was in a great mood and it didn't bother me.

A few minutes later, as I got into the elevator, some girl turned to me and said, "Did you see who that was behind you? The dad from that motorcycle show on TV! His kid was there too!" Dim awareness would also describe my general sense that there's some kind of choppers-related cable television show I've never seen (I have never typed the word "choppers" so many times in my life) wherein a father and son ride motorcycles, or customize them or vote them off an island.

I was struck by the contrast between how big a deal the Choppers family was to this girl, and how meaningless they were to me. Then again, if New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz had walked by, I would have taken note and the girl likely wouldn't have. There's someone out there for everyone to admire, and in today's oversaturated world, more people than ever are meaningful to tiny slices of the population. Speaking of which, if you got the Hank Kingsley reference above, nice.

The random brush with fame (of a sort, anyway) foreshadowed the evening ahead of us. Sure, I would have preferred to cross paths with supermodel Niki Taylor, also staying at our hotel, but the Choppers guy did suffice. For the record, I generally try to avoid name-dropping, but to tell the story of a big Broadway opening night, you have to break a few eggs, so please indulge me.

Our buddy Matt Goldberg took the train down from Boston to join Seth and me for the show. After an obligatory bite to eat at the Parker Meridien's semi-secret lobby Burger Joint, we headed down to Broadway for the early 6:45 curtain. We got there well in advance but the crowd was already growing as rain fell. I'd expected a showbiz kind of night, and sure enough, as I hopped out of our cab, the first person I saw was one of my favorite character actors, Ron Rifkin, waiting under an umbrella.

In front of the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, photographers camped behind barricades, leaving little room on the sidewalk for the throng of showgoers to maneuver. We managed to find Matt's friend, recent New Yorker interviewee David Danzig, and enter the theater.

Seth's brother Steve Traxler, a major Broadway player, is one of the producers of the show. While they greeted their other guests, and Matt and Dave went to find their seats, I loitered in the back of the house to take in some opening-night hoopla.

The well-dressed crowd of suave sophisticates and beautiful women made for good people-watching. Every few minutes an actor (Tom Wopat, Mariska Hargitay) or media pundit (Rita Cosby, Joy Behar) would trigger a flashbulb explosion in front of the theater. Neil Simon got such a greeting, then a warm welcome from several theater staffers; the biggest fireworks display went to Matthew Broderick and Jerry Seinfeld, who arrived together. I recognized an actor from my favorite new show, Mad Men, and congratulated him on the show's recent renewal for a second season.

Not to get too Us Weekly on you, but the other industry types in the crowd included Sidney Lumet, Eric Bogosian, Joel Grey, Anthony Edwards, Molly Ringwald, Christine Ebersole, Josh Lucas, Lynn Redgrave, Tracy Letts, Stephanie March, Richard Kline, Kelli O'Hara and Marc Shaiman.

Soon enough it was curtain time, so I joined Seth in what turned out to be rock-star seats in the fourth row, with Seinfeld and Broderick behind us in row 5 and Neil Simon in row 6. Yes, I too was struck by the ridiculousness of my sitting there. Steve and his longtime girlfriend, the gracious Carrie Lannon, sat a few seats over from us.

November stars Nathan Lane as an incompetent U.S. president who's made a mockery of his first term (sound familiar?) and is about to get slaughtered in his reëlection bid (this is where art and life sadly diverge). Dylan Baker plays his faithful right-hand man and Laurie Metcalf his ace speechwriter. It's Mamet's first new Broadway show in many years, as he's been doing movie work and shepherding the CBS television series The Unit, though Steve did produce (and win a Tony for) the recent all-star Glengarry Glen Ross revival. The director of that production, Joe Mantello, is back for this one.

Mamet comes out firing with several minutes of dead-on jokes skewering the current presidential administration. Opening with populist shots across the bow is a wise move, dispensing the necessary medicine early and settling the crowd into their seats. From there, the door is wide open for Mamet to bang away at hot topics in national politics (warmongering, gay marriage, controversial pardons, lobbyist cash), which he does gleefully. Although November invokes recent missteps by the White House, it also airs some Clinton-era laundry. Like Mamet's Wag the Dog, it's not so much a partisan attack as a takedown of the politics of cynicism.

I liked the show. Most of it works and all of it held my interest. It's definitely a Mamet play, coarse and jaded like Glengarry and American Buffalo, but lighter and broader, à la State and Main. The one-liners fly fast and furious, running the gamut from pithy to wacky. Nathan Lane sells the material with his usual glib gusto, with the intelligent Dylan Baker well cast as his more grounded foil. Designer Scott Pask's faithfully rendered Oval Office set is a stately backdrop for all the hijinks.

I also got a kick out of watching a new comedy with Jerry Seinfeld and Matthew Broderick sitting right behind me. With Seinfeld's barking laugh and Broderick's soft chuckle in my ear, I could compare the jokes that made them laugh out loud with the jokes I liked the best.

It felt like a trip through modern Broadway history: watching the premiere of a new Mamet show, sitting between the two stars of the box-office smash The Producers, with B'way icon Neil Simon along for the ride. You may remember that Broderick's Tony-winning turn as Eugene Jerome in Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs kick-started his career. (Want more Six Degrees of Matthew Broderick? Simon wrote Broderick's movie debut, Max Dugan Returns; Broderick reprised the Eugene role in Simon's Biloxi Blues on stage and screen; he did voice work in Seinfeld's Bee Movie; his new movie with Dylan Baker just played at Sundance; and his wife appeared in Mamet's State and Main.)

When the show ended, the crowd roared its approval. Red, white and blue balloons fell from the ceiling as the cast took its curtain call, then returned for another. As we made our way to the exits, I helped a frantic woman try to find her missing umbrella. Not just any beautiful six-foot blonde, she turned out to be the actress Kristen Johnston, best known from the NBC series 3rd Rock from the Sun, but with stage roots at Mamet's Atlantic Theater Company.

What had already been a great night out only got better as we walked a few blocks through the rain to the after-party at the nearby restaurant Bond 45. Much of the audience headed there too. Someone explained to me that most or all of the tickets to a Broadway opening-night performance are comps; with an audience of invited guests, it's pretty much an industry function and celebratory occasion. Then, starting on day two, it's all about selling tickets.

Bond 45 has a Broadway pedigree of its own, as the building was once the Hammerstein Theater and the Ziegfeld Follies began on its roof. As the current name implies, it later housed the Bond clothing store on 45th Street, which famously offered two pairs of pants with every suit. These days it's a bustling theater district restaurant, a good choice for an opening-night celebration.

By the time we got there, a long line had formed in front of the place. As if he hadn't done enough already, Steve magically whisked us out of the rain and into the party through a side door. The front of the place was laid out as a runway where the newly reassembled photographers could shoot the stars as they entered. "Come on, guys, where's the love?" my friends and I joked as our entrance was roundly ignored.

It will come as little surprise that the party was a blast. The room exuded old-time New York, the Brooks Atkinson era, ideal for a Broadway opening night. Its open bars were pouring fast as excellent food passed on trays through a wall-to-wall capacity crowd. Beyond the chance to catch up with old friends and make new ones, we now had the show to talk about, and throughout the evening, word spread as positive newspaper reviews in early editions hit the streets (the critics having attended previews).

Because each guest had a specific reason for being there, everyone had a story to tell. The festive mood lent itself to casual chitchat, so just saying hello to people usually led somewhere interesting. For example, the box office manager told us about the last-minute ticket crunch in the days before the premiere. The behind-the-scenes drama inherent in her job fascinated me, but she seemed relieved to be out of the woods. I also got a kick out of the 20-year manager of the Barrymore Theatre, a walking fountain of Broadway anecdotes who dropped some pearls about working with Harold Pinter.

Two women and I kept crossing paths all night, joking around briefly each time. Finally, toward the end of the night, Matt and I spoke with them. One turned out to be David Mamet's personal assistant for the last few years, in from Los Angeles for the premiere. Another guest, a friend of Steve and Carrie's whom I'd sat next to at the play, was a debonair Englishman who runs the Soho House, an exclusive NYC hotel. They're hoping to open one in Chicago in the next few years.

Familiar faces drifted by, a Victor Garber here and a cast member there. I hadn't spoken to Seinfeld or Broderick at the theater, but at the party I got to trade a few quips with them and actually managed to crack them up. Being guests at the same party and sharing a give-and-take was a more reciprocal, human experience than seeing them projected on a screen.

I also congratulated Dylan Baker, another of my favorite actors, whom I loved as Lt. Polson in Steven Bochco's Murder One when I was in law school. He's had an enviable career full of legitimate theater work, leading roles in independent movies such as Todd Solondz' Happiness, and character parts in mainstream blockbusters (he plays Peter Parker's college professor in the Spider-Man movies). I meant to ask him whether he was named after the golfer from The Great Gatsby, but I'm glad I forgot to, because the character was actually called Jordan Baker.

Some of the actors were of particular interest. Over dinner, for example, we'd talked about The Wire. Like so many people, Seth and Matt are huge fans, plus Matt's from Baltimore, so they relished chatting with Chris Bauer, who played the union head in Season 2. Elsewhere in quality cable, the Mad Men star I'd met, John Slattery, confirmed Seth's theory that our lunch spot, the Oyster Bar, was the inspiration for Slattery's oyster-eating scene with Jon Hamm from the memorable episode "Red in the Face." They'd filmed it at Musso and Frank, Hollywood's oldest restaurant, but he told Seth the Grand Central institution was the model.

Seth and Steve did a great job of making all their friends, clients, relatives and fellow investors feel welcome, and what a way to entertain. The Traxlers are seasoned investors, having backed many Broadway shows over the years, but it was the first opening-night experience for most of us who joined them. Not only did everyone enjoy the play, a worthy addition to the Mamet canon, but on its opening night on Broadway, and the after-party too? Come on; as a great New Yorker said, you cannot be serious. It was a thrill and a privilege to be along for the ride, and I know all the other guests felt the same way.

Eventually, as the party wound down, David bade us farewell and Seth, Matt and I made our way in the rain. Our evening ended as it had started, with the three of us grabbing a bite to eat in a beloved New York eatery. This time it was midnight matza ball soup, pickles, potato latkes and pastrami sandwiches at the Carnegie Deli, where we compared notes on a night to remember.

I hadn't imposed on any of the celebrities to take a snapshot with me. I did, however, get the photo I wanted most, the one I took with my friends.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

In honor of Election Day... attempt I once made to mine some humor from it, here.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Just asking

After Tuesday's elections, I assume I'll be able to get the new state's attorney and circuit court judges on the phone, both land-line and cell, as easily as their prerecorded campaign endorsement messages have been getting me?

Mad flavor

I write event previews for Flavorpill Chicago, a popular culture guide (ambiguous phrasing intentional). My latest night-out suggestion is here.

The Chicago edition is a satellite outpost of Flavorpill's New York HQ, a large, airy loft office in SoHo. I dropped by a few months ago and found it as virtually cool as the New York Times did. From time to time, Flavorpill transcends the virtual into actual coolness by not only writing about buzzworthy events but sponsoring them. At its latest throwdown, e.g., Kanye West rocked the mic.

If you live in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London or Miami (or frequent them, as so much of my jet-setting readership does), jump over to Flavorpill and check it out.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Gotta love this guy

Here's Sen. Barack Obama's response to President Bush's State of the Union address (suggested title: "Meanwhile, Back on Earth...").