Sunday, December 28, 2008


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


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.”

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:

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

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

"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.

Another guy who hates you

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


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.