Monday, September 29, 2008

Old school comedy

The stars were shining in Chicago last night. Sure, you had your Brian Urlacher, Devin Hester and Donovan McNabb doing their pigskin thing under the lights at Soldier Field, but a few miles to the north, another bunch of all-pros gathered in Old Town.

The Second City comedy theater is an American institution since 1959. Every night it presents a scripted sketch revue followed by a "set," a group of improvised scenes in which current cast members work on characters and scenarios for inclusion in future shows.

On this night, the regular cast stepped aside for an "alumni reunion set" in which eight performers from circa 1968-72 reunited for an impromptu one-time performance of their classic scenes. The place was packed and the alums delivered the goods, taking the crowd back to a time when our country was mired in an unpopular foreign war and gas prices were out of control. How things have changed.

Probably the most familiar face in the reunion cast was Harold Ramis. Back before he played a skinny Ghostbuster and a sardonic Army recruit, he simultaneously held not one but two Chicago dream jobs, working as an editor at Playboy magazine while performing eight shows a week at Second City. After making his name in Hollywood, he returned to Chicago to raise his family.

Ramis was just one of the gang on this night. They quickly shook off the rust and found their rhythm, banging out the old school bits with the confidence of longtime pros. Some of the laughs came through the time warp, with a 55-year-old son in a family scene and anachronistic references to ditto machines and four-dollar movie prices (which I think meant two admissions); other sketches were such timeless tropes as a nutty funeral and a fast-talking, wordplay-rich monologue.

Although much of the audience (including the current mainstage and Second City e.t.c. casts) was unborn the last time these troupers hit the Pipers Alley stage, everyone appreciated the singular gathering. You know it's a big night at Second City when co-founding former owner Bernard Sahlins comes out and the likes of Tim Kazurinsky show up and don't even perform. There was a certain electricity in the air. Happily, the show wasn't just a nod to history, it was also funny.

Second City being what it is, these special nights happen there from time to time. Sometimes they're spontaneous: when alumnus Mike Myers was in town a few years ago to promote a Shrek movie, he brought his costars Cameron Diaz and Eddie Murphy to the theater to take in a show. They all jumped onstage afterward to play the set with the cast.

The reunion set was planned well in advance, with cast members flying in and rehearsing over a period of days. As rumors spread of the unusual event, Second City tried to comply with the cast's wish that the show not be promoted, advertised or otherwise big-dealed. Inquiries from local journalists went unanswered as producers studiously neither confirmed nor denied. In this spirit, I agreed not to alert my literally tens of readers.

Anyone who'd heard about it, though, could walk into the set for free to find out whether the rumors were true, and those who showed up were rewarded with a memorable evening.

As ever, literally and figuratively, thanks to Second City for all the laughs.

Update:  Second City's website summarizes the evening like so.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Roger Federer as Religious Experience

The colossal talents David Foster Wallace and Roger Federer crossed paths at the 2006 Wimbledon championships. Wallace marked the occasion with a graceful paean to Federer for PLAY, the New York Times' sports magazine, entitled "Roger Federer as Religious Experience."

Its core assertion:
If you've never seen [Roger Federer] play live, and then do, in person, on the sacred grass of Wimbledon, ... you are apt to have what one of the tournament's press bus drivers describes as a "bloody near-religious experience." It may be tempting, at first, to hear a phrase like this as just one more of the overheated tropes that people resort to to describe the feeling of Federer Moments. But the driver's phrase turns out to be true — literally, for an instant ecstatically.

What David Foster Wallace did with a pen, Roger Federer does with a racket. And notwithstanding Wallace's take on the reductiveness of watching tennis on video ("the truth is that TV tennis is to live tennis pretty much as video porn is to the felt reality of human love"), we celebrate the brilliance of these two men with this week's installment of Friday Live:

Thursday, September 25, 2008

David Foster Wallace and Michael Joyce

In a memorable 1996 Esquire magazine article, the late David Foster Wallace profiled tennis player Michael Joyce's attempt to qualify for a spot in the main draw of the 1995 Canadian Open, in the context of a broader portrait of the sport and its players.

The story gained a wider audience after a longer version was included in Wallace's now-classic essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. It was so well written, so insightful, so flat-out excellent that it's burned into the brains of David Foster Wallace fans and tennis fans alike (and, a fortiori, those of us who love both).

In a small coda to the end of Wallace's life, Tennis Week magazine has interviewed Michael Joyce about David Foster Wallace, found here.

Update: Today is Friday, October 10, 2008. For reasons unclear to me, all kinds of people are googling their way here to read this blog entry (by searching "david foster wallace michael joyce" and its variants). Was there something in the press today about DFW and Michael Joyce? I'm curious. Could someone please email me (benj23 [at] and explain why Wallace/Joyce is such a hot topic today? Thanks.

Update update: Thanks to everyone who emailed or comment-posted the explanation that ESPN's Bill Simmons cited DFW's Michael Joyce article as one of the best pieces of sportswriting ever.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Athletes' feats

I haven't written about sports in quite a while. I've heard your cries of woe, both of you, so here's a little.

1. Federer Express

You can debate whether Roger Federer is the greatest player of all time, but he's indisputably the most elegant. The dashing Swiss won the 2008 U.S. Open a few weeks ago, becoming the only person to win five straight titles at each of two different Grand Slam tennis tournaments, and drawing within one of Pete Sampras' record 14 major titles.

Slowed by mononucleosis as the year opened, Federer hadn't won a Grand Slam tournament in 2008, but reports of his demise were premature. He still made the semis at Melbourne, where he barely lost to Novak Djokovic in five sets; made the French Open final, where Rafael Nadal dismantled him; and took the Wimbledon final to five exquisite sets before Nadal snapped his All England title streak at five. He also took Olympic gold in doubles with countryman Stanislas Wawrinka.

Not a bad year by any standard short of the superhuman last few years Federer's enjoyed; he took a lot of grief for being merely excellent. Look for him to pick up a Slam or two in 2009 and contend for the world #1 ranking, which he recently surrendered to Nadal after a record-breaking 237 consecutive weeks atop the sport.

2. Flying the W flag

By winning a division title on Saturday, the Chicago Cubs have clinched their first back-to-back playoff appearances since 1907-08.

It's all going their way lately. First the Milwaukee Brewers were accommodating enough to keep losing games during the Cubs' early September meltdown. That more or less put the Cubs in the postseason.

Next, Hurricane Ike moved a Cubs weekend series from Houston to a supposedly neutral site, Miller Park in Milwaukee. Ostensibly home games for Houston, the Milwaukee contests were played in Wrigley North as 20,000-plus fans drove an hour or two up I-94 to sing "Go Cubs Go" north of the state line.

Those who braved recently flooded expressways on Sunday were rewarded as Carlos Zambrano threw the first Cubs no-hitter since 1972, answering big questions about the playoff readiness of a player who'd sat out for a few weeks with arm problems. (The Cubs being the Cubs, he got rocked in the first inning of his next start.)

And last night, with the playoffs in the bag, the Cubs started playing spoiler to other teams with postseason aspirations. Pitcher Jason Marquis hit a grand slam in Shea Stadium to help his own cause. He earned a meaningless victory over the New York Mets, to whom a win would have been meaningful. Derrek Lee hit his 20th home run, making 2008 just the third season in which a Cubs team has had five players with 20+ HR.

The Cubs will use the next week to set up their rotation, give de facto tryouts to a number of players angling for playoff roster spots, and pray for the Mets, Brewers and Phillies to finish with identical records. Then they'd have to wear each other out with one-game playoffs and waste their aces just to get to the first round.

Those three teams are fighting for the last two National League playoff spots. We'll know before who long who's in and who plays whom.

3. Ryder?

Congratulations to the U.S. Ryder Cup team, which reclaimed the trophy and its concomitant transatlantic bragging rights for the first time since 1999.

I've never attended a Ryder Cup, or any golf tournament. My closest brush was over Labor Day weekend in 2002, when I sat near European Ryder Cup hero Sergio Garcia in Arthur Ashe Stadium at the tennis U.S. Open. He was there to watch his then-girlfriend, Martina Hingis, play doubles with Anna Kournikova. I was there to watch Hingis and Kournikova run around, but was happy to learn there would also be a tennis match.

The Ryder Cup used to take place in odd-numbered years, but the September 2001 tournament was scratched after September 11 and postponed a year. So in 2002, it had been three years since the last Ryder Cup, and anticipation was high. I don't know much about golf but even I knew Garcia had played exceptionally for Europe in the previous go-round and was considered a key player for the upcoming tournament.

After the teen queens destroyed Meghann Shaughnessy and Chicago's Laura Granville, Garcia started making his way to the players' lounge. Knowing his reputation for haughtiness, I thought I'd provoke him with an intentionally stupid question as he walked by me. "Hey Serge!" He turned around. "You playing Ryder Cup?" He glared at me with the disdain of an arrogant matador standing over a vanquished bull, and with a heavy accent sneered, "Of course I am!"

Monday, September 22, 2008

Holy whatever, Batman

I finally saw The Dark Knight the other week. The least plausible special effect was the casting of Maggie Gyllenhaal as the woman of Christian Bale and Aaron Eckhart's dreams.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Friday live

That sobriquet has never been more cruel. Last weekend we lost one of our finest writers, American or non-, fiction and non-. Today we pay him homage.

From a March 1997 visit to the Charlie Rose show, the late, great David Foster Wallace. His segment begins at 23:15.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Good point, Chuck Klosterman

New York City, some have observed, is unlike the rest of America. 

In this recent Time Out New York Q&A by FOBB&B John Sellers, author Chuck Klosterman puts a finer point on it:
TONY: Okay, then. Your novel is set in North Dakota, your home state. No offense, but that seems like a strange place to have grown up. 

Chuck Klosterman: People talk about how strange it must have been growing up on a farm in North Dakota. But I think kids who grow up in Manhattan have the weirdest understanding of what the world is like. They essentially don’t even live in America. They live in this place where nobody drives, where you can get anything you want at any given time, where diversity is normal. A political moderate here is somebody who, like, doesn’t want McCain to die. To me, that would be weird.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

David Foster Wallace 1962-2008

From the Los Angeles Times:
Writer David Foster Wallace found dead

David Foster Wallace was found dead last night at his home in Claremont. His wife told Claremont police that the novelist and humorist who wrote 'Infinite Jest' hanged himself Friday night. He was 46.
It's a huge loss. DFW was one of the leading writers of his generation, with an ornate style as distinctly his own as an Emily Dickinson or Herb Caen. He radiated intelligence, curiosity and compassion.

Reading a David Foster Wallace essay is like having lunch with your smartest and funniest friend just back from his latest crazy adventure. He can take you somewhere you've never been and make you feel like you have, or make you see something commonplace in a whole new way.

Before the explosive growth of the Internet, when most reading occurred via the printed page, DFW wrote the definitive magazine essay about taking a luxury cruise. The hilarious and somewhat snide masterpiece was photocopied and passed around more than any other piece of writing I can remember.

That essay is the titular gem in a collection that remains my favorite David Foster Wallace book, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments, which I've given as a gift many times. It's mostly commissioned pieces he wrote for magazines like The Atlantic and Vanity Fair and, taken as a whole, amply demonstrates his range and prodigious skill.

As a tennis player and fan, I took particular interest in ASFT's two excellent chapters on the subject. One of them is a personal history in which DFW recounts his days as a competitive junior player in downstate Illinois. A raging brain even as a kid, he viewed the sport as an exercise in physics and geometry. With his smaller size and public courts pedigree, he had to use his smarts to beat the taller, expensively trained Aryan specimens from the local country club.

The other tennis chapter is required reading for anyone interested in how professional tennis works. Wallace manages to get his arms around the entire sprawling subject: the punishing defeat of vastly talented players by even more talented peers; the repetitive myopia of life on the tour; the insane skills of people so good at playing tennis they can do it professionally; the frequently ragged early-round matches, played in obscurity on outer courts, that lead to manicured, televised finals; the personal one-dimensionality of the typical touring pro; and the struggle of the marginal player to keep a career going in a sport where you pay your own way to the next town.

It's a mesmerizing read for even a casual fan, and also feels familiar to me because Wallace uses the solid but not dominant tour player Michael Joyce as a window to the pro tennis world. Now Maria Sharapova's hitting partner, Joyce was a regular in our local USTA Challenger event every July in Winnetka when I was growing up in the Chicago suburbs, so his inclusion made the essay that much more authentic.

For all his journalistic acumen, DFW is best known as a fiction author whose discursive and ironic yet deeply sincere and yearning gyrations helped define a new era in American fiction writing.

His crowning achievement is the novel Infinite Jest, an impossibly complex, frequently hilarious, semi-penetrable 1000-page parable set in a dystopian near future. I made the mistake of starting to read Infinite Jest three days before my final year of law school. Good luck. Three months would have been more like it.

Infinite Jest also has a tennis theme. Like many fiction writers, Wallace wrote what he knew, and he knew from pot-smoking teen prodigies at a tennis academy, but like any great novel it's not really about what it's about.

On the journalistic side, though, his tennis writing is very much about tennis, and no one's done it better. I defer to David Foster Wallace's masterful summation in A Supposedly Fun Thing, but in honor of DFW, here's a short version of my occasional brushes with life on the pro tennis tour.

Challenger tournaments like the one I grew up with are the AAA baseball of pro tennis, small-time events whose players are trying to earn enough computer points to move up to the bigger events on the main tour. They attract a mix of young guys on the way up, seasoned pros working their way back from injuries, and journeymen who exist in the netherworld between Andre Agassi and you.

Consider their struggle: the Winnetka tournament, for example, attracts a field of 32 singles players, plus the players who fail in qualifying rounds to earn spots in the main draw, plus those who only play in the 16-team doubles tournament. The total prize money is $50,000, the singles champion gets $7200 and roughly half of the players get nothing.

But they all have to scrape together a plane ticket to Chicago and bear the other expenses of life on the road. When you're Pete Sampras they pay you millions to wear this shoe or play with that racket; when you're #319 in the world, you're happy when the Nike rep gives you a couple of shirts. It's routine for promising players to pack it in because the expenses grind them down, and/or find sponsors to help keep hope alive while they try to play their way up.

Some players break through not long after playing the likes of Winnetka (e.g., we had Sampras, Todd Martin, two-time U.S. Open champion Patrick Rafter, and eventual doubles world #1 Leander Paes), but many others never do.

Locals like me volunteer at these tournaments, working scoreboards, selling tickets or driving players to their hotel. It's also common for players stay in local families' homes (including ours) and save a few bucks. The player gets home-cooked meals, help with his laundry and maybe a car to drive around for a few days, and the family gets an interesting houseguest.

As a group I found the touring pros interesting and fun to be around, particularly the boisterous, golf-crazy Australians, some of the most spirited, fun-loving people I've ever met. They all had McDonalds logos on their shirts because that was the sponsor of the Australian junior tennis program.

I also liked a quiet 16-year-old English kid I drove to the hotel a few times. He was modest and shy, overshadowed by the loud, boastful guys around him in the tournament van, but he turned out to have more game than any of them. His name was Tim Henman.

Other than their absurd way of making a living they were just people, with all their quirks. One year our family hosted a Frenchman who'd only registered for Winnetka because he thought it was in Europe. Another year we had an Indian player whose time on the tour was running out. He spent most of his time calling his far-off relatives on my parents' land line and angling for a cushy job as a tennis pro in Doha, Qatar.

Hanging around with the players, you really get a sense of what life is like on the tour, and from where I sit, David Foster Wallace nailed it.

Rest in peace.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Thank you

This week's Friday Live gets all political and stuff.

As someone appalled at the selection of Sarah Palin, and outraged by America's insufficient outrage, I second the thoughts of one Matt Damon:

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Two more

...goodwill tours, meaning tours by artists for whom I feel goodwill.

Squeeze and Aimee Mann are on the road, longtime contributors cashing a well-earned check by banging out the hits.  I'm more into Squeeze, but who'd object to the stalwart Aimee Mann?  It's a nice bill.

They played Ravinia here over Labor Day weekend, which I forgot to mention at the time (apologies to the literally three or four people who look to this space for entertainment advice), but I did write it up for Flavorpill here.

On the timelier tip, here's a timelier tip.  The great Mike Birbiglia, one of America's best and brightest young standup comedians, plays the Lakeshore Theater tomorrow night.  Check it out.

Actually, it's almost certainly sold out by now, but my Flavorpill preview's been online for a month now.  Surely you read it weeks ago and got your tickets then, right?

Monday, September 8, 2008

Goodwill tours

The USO has long sent performers overseas on goodwill tours to entertain our troops. This week, some domestic equivalents are getting underway.

Now that the Olympics and political conventions are behind us and a new television season's about to begin, everyone's hitting the road to sell something: national pride, a network dramedy, balance beam perkiness, or a vision for America.

For example, with the intense glare of their extended Gloria Swanson closeup burned into America's retinas, the U.S. gymnastics team is embarking on a nationwide victory lap. They're visiting dozens of cities in a Summer Games equivalent of the ice skating tour that traditionally follows the Winter Olympics.

Elsewhere in the five-ring scene, a patriotic Oprah Winfrey welcomed Michael Phelps, Kobe Bryant, Dara Torres and 170 other medal-winning athletes to Chicago for a celebratory season premiere of her show, which aired today. The jingoistic lovefest at Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park also served as a de facto hour-long commercial for the Chicago 2016 Olympic bid.

As for Phelps, despite his compelling personal story and record-breaking Beijing performance, his sport isn't watchable enough to justify an exhibition tour. At least he'll book enough commercials and speaking engagements that he'll never have to work again (did he ever before?). He's also hosting the season premiere of Saturday Night Live.

On the political front, having staged their conventions and enjoyed their respective poll bumps, the candidates for national office and their spouses are on the road this week peddling their wares.

Some of it's soft soap, e.g. Michelle Obama's forthcoming visit to the safe-as-milk Ellen DeGeneres Show, a nonthreatening, cuddly platform from which to reassure middle America that she's not Angela Davis.

There's also some heavy lifting going on, such as the $4 million pile of gold nuggets John McCain picked up today at a fundraiser here in Chicago. Both presidential candidates' incessant check-cashing constitutes a different sort of Goodwill tour.

A word about Sarah Palin. She was widely lauded last week by the GOP establishment for giving a decent speech at the Republican National Convention, delivering some passable one-liners and landing a few swipes at Barack Obama.

Really? Is it that impressive that after being groomed and rehearsed for a week by the best speechwriters money could rent, she ended up with a pretty good speech at her national coming-out party? Wouldn't it have been more of a story if she'd failed to deliver a crowd pleaser?

Yes, she did read well from a teleprompter and look good. This qualifies her for a spot on the NBC5 news team, not so much a gig as the understudy to the leader of the free world.

Overlooked in Palin's beauty queen résumé and colorful history is the fact that she's currently the subject of a state ethics investigation for apparently firing Alaska's public safety commissioner because he refused to fire a state trooper who'd divorced her sister. More broadly, her record as Alaska's governor ranges from unimpressive to troubling.

A prop-betting website in Ireland is already laying 5 to 1 odds that Palin will be off the ticket by Election Day. They could be right.

McCain, feeling the winds of change blowing across America and dreading an Obama landslide, tried to stem the tide by picking a different sort of vice presidential candidate. Unfortunately the different he was going for was "female" but the different he went with was "massively unqualified."

Team McCain is so concerned about a Palin gaffe that they cloistered her away in a hyperbaric star chamber as soon as their convention ended, refusing all interview requests and intensively prepping her for the oncoming media firestorm. She'll face plenty of interviewers on the campaign trail but none will be the aforementioned Oprah, who's already said no thanks to a Palin visit.

Say what you will about people like Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, and there's plenty to say, but the fact is that each of these men has forged a career of some distinction. The same is true of who knows how many Republican women. I'm sure they're all thrilled that they got passed over for the likes of Sarah Palin.

She would do well to stay in Alaska, try to get her state turned around and take care of all those kids (she has five: Trig, Calc, Track, Cross Country and Juno). As Triumph the Insult Comic Dog pointed out, she may be just 11 years away from becoming a great-grandmother.

For all of Barack Obama's talk of bringing America together, John McCain beat him to the punch. He's managed to unite this entire country in common dread of the chilling specter that Sarah Palin could conceivably become our president.

So much for goodwill.

Friday, September 5, 2008

American beauty

For this week's installment of our Friday performance series, one American classic performed by two more.

With their heartfelt rendition of the Everly Brothers' "Love Hurts," it's Emmylou Harris and the late Gram Parsons:

Thursday, September 4, 2008

I see

Returning from Beijing, Bob Costas stopped by Conan O'Brien's talk show to wrap up the Olympics.
O'BRIEN:  Now what about the much-discussed 14-year-old gymnast? What's your answer to that one?

COSTAS:  She told me she was 18, Conan.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

A guide to usage

Tarango: 1990s pro tennis hothead
Charango: An LP by British trip-hoppers Morcheeba
Tarasco: 1990s Baltimore Orioles outfielder
Churrasco: South American grilled meat