Friday, December 31, 2010

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Let's spend the night together

Tributosaurus, one of the more ambitious cover bands ever to pick up a guitar, goes after some big game when they perform as The Rolling Stones for New Year's weekend.

Think they're just messing around?  They've got longtime Rolling Stones saxophone player Bobby Keys in the lineup.

My Flavorpill preview is here.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Pa rum pum pum pum

Here's a Christmas classic to enjoy as you open your presents:

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Interview Show

Humor columnist and FOBB&B Mark Bazer hosts a monthly variety show at The Hideout in Chicago in which he interviews celebrities and stages performances by comedians, musicians and artists. Think of it as a funny version of "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno."

It's called The Interview Show.  You should check it out not because Mark is a great guy with a cool wife, two neat kids and a consistently funny newspaper column, although he is, but because he's a perceptive, prepared, intelligent interviewer who handpicks an eclectic lineup of guests every month and showcases them in an appealing, laid-back format. Plus the show is hilarious.

Mark's January guests will include 1985 Bears Super Bowl champion Steve "Mongo" McMichael, Chicago Symphony Orchestra composer-in-residence Anna Clyne and magician Tomas Medina.

Until then, here's Mark interviewing Jake Nickell, co-founder of the hugely popular artist collective and T-shirt company Threadless:

The Interview Show takes place on the first Friday evening of every month at The Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia Ave. in Chicago. Admission? A mere $5. More information at

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Use the Force, Hermione

This old chestnut has been rattling around the Internet for years, but as NBC used to say in justifying its television reruns, if you haven't seen it, it's new to you:

Monday, December 20, 2010

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Love is all around

Seen on my desk at work the other day:

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Party like it's 1925

FOBB&B and current events librettist Ben Greenman is a good guy to have around, particularly if you work at the New Yorker and made it to the office holiday party the other night.

Ben decided to celebrate the magazine's long history (estd. February 1925, as my fellow Tilleyphiles will know) by creating a party playlist featuring one hit song from every year of the magazine's existence.

"Begin the Beguine"?   Check.  "Your Cheatin' Heart"?  Check.  "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' "?   Check.

The complete playlist is here, as are links to audio versions you can listen to. Surely you've already got Jelly Roll Morton's "Fat Meat and Greens" on your iPod, but check it out.

Tip credit:, a site I should have started reading years ago and in whose general direction I, and all general interest bloggers, must genuflect

Monday, December 13, 2010

Oh, and, um...

The Second City That Never Sleeps: Letters to Santa, the Pipers Alley comedy institution's ninth annual holiday benefit show, kicks off tomorrow night at 6 p.m.

It's 24 straight hours of sketch comedy, celebrity interviews, rock music and expert improvisation. This year's highlights include difficult but brilliant Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy at 8pm; difficult but brilliant recording engineer Steve Albini interviewing fellow Northwestern University alumnnus, Groupon founder and incipient billionaire Andrew Mason at 10:30pm; the difficult Sally Timms and brilliant Jon Langford at 7:30am; and the brilliant, easygoing Robbie Fulks at 1pm. More performers will be added to the schedule up to (and past) showtime, and surprise walkons are routine.

Did we mention the cause? All proceeds go toward Christmas presents for poor kids -- specifically those who wrote letters to Santa Claus, helpfully diverted to Second City operatives by the elves at the downtown Chicago branch of the U.S. Postal Service.

If that doesn't appeal to you on an artistic, altruistic or charitable level, you are hereby invited to stop reading my blog permanently.

For everyone else...   My Flavorpill preview is here.

Be not afraid

I just caught the press opening of Steppenwolf Theater Company's revival of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and found it suitably harrowing.

My Flavorpill preview is here.

Morning constitutional

It's the DOME ESTIK TRAN KWILI T that I particularly enjoy.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Fireball Crosswords

I've taken an interest in crossword puzzles over the past several years, or more accurately, focused my lifelong diffuse interest. By solving the New York Times crossword at first every Friday and Saturday, then nearly every day, and attending the last two American Crossword Puzzle Tournaments, I've gradually become immersed in a whole new lake.

Besides getting better at solving crosswords than I've ever been, I've also come to appreciate the lake's depth. Beyond the millions who solve the crossword in their daily newspaper, there are active communities of crossword constructors, daily blog readers, and listserv discussion groups, plus the thriving membership of the world's oldest surviving puzzle club (the National Puzzlers League, founded 1883).

Along the way I've met a lot of interesting people: crossword bloggers, newspaper and magazine puzzle editors, superstar solvers, and plenty of just plain folks like myself who happen to share this interest.

Take crossword constructor Peter Gordon.  Like many puzzle pros, he got his start at Games magazine as a young prodigy, and went on to work with Will Shortz at the New York Times. When a new daily paper called the New York Sun came along, Peter became its crossword editor.

He raised a lot of eyebrows and developed a hardcore following as he ambitiously, audaciously mounted the first serious challenge to the NYT in decades for crossword supremacy. Who won the battle? Everyone who likes quality crossword puzzles.

Unfortunately the Sun didn't make it, but hearing the outcry of his public, Peter kept its beloved puzzle going under the name Fireball Crosswords (get it?). It's now a subscription-based puzzle that Peter will email you 40 times a year for a nominal fee. I handed him a $10 bill at last year's national tournament and it was so worth it.

The Fireball puzzle isn't for everyone. As Peter says on the Fireball website, "The puzzles are hard. How hard? If you have to ask, too hard for you."

If you can finish or at least make a healthy dent in the Saturday New York Times crossword, you will enjoy the Fireball. If you run out of momentum by the middle of the week, or you prefer more casual crosswords like those in USA Today or TV Guide, this is not the puzzle for you.

I mention it now for two reasons. First, it's the holiday season, and if you know someone who likes tough crosswords, a 2011 Fireball subscription would make an excellent gift. Visit its website,, for subscription information.

You'll also find a number of puzzles Peter wrote and some interesting articles about the Sun puzzle, particularly a 2005 story from The Weekly Standard in which fellow constructor Matt Gaffney attempts to settle, in a methodical, systematic fashion, the then-raging debate over which puzzle, Sun or NYT, is best.

I also mention Peter because I recently contributed in a small way to one of his other current puzzle gigs, the weekly crossword at The Week magazine. At the end of every calendar year, Peter creates a year-in-review puzzle for The Week in which he summarizes the year's news headlines by anagramming the names of newsmakers in the grid. For example, if Jay Leno had been elected mayor of Los Angeles (God forbid), Peter might give the clue JAY LENO for the answer ENJOY LA.

Several weeks ago, Peter put out the call to his friends in the crossword community for puzzleworthy headline anagrams. I chipped in a few ideas and was gratified to learn the other day that from the dozens of entertaining suggestions he received, he chose three to use in the puzzle and one of them is mine (at 1-Across and 69-Across, no less). I've solved the finished puzzle and it's a lot of fun.

The Week's year-in-review puzzle won't be available for another month or so. To tide you over until then, you might get a kick out of this.

From Peter Gordon, a guy who writes some of the world's best crosswords, here's The World's Worst Crossword:

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Jay Ryan

The great Jay Ryan, laconic gentleman, colossal talent, New Trier Trevian, FOBB&B, has earned an international reputation for his handmade silk-screened rock poster art. Check out his impressive body of work at

Every few years Jay compiles his recent work into a book. I've got the 2009 omnibus, Animals and Objects In and Out of Water, having known Jay since long before Wilco and Andrew Bird were vying for his services. (Then again, I once met Larry King, so don't judge your coolness against my towering standard.)

The 2005 compendium, 100 Posters/134 Squirrels, quickly sold out and went out of print. Happily, Jay has just updated it with additional commentary on each of the hundred prints, new photographs and a different cover. The rereleased book is now available at Jay's website.

Jay will be appearing this Friday evening at Quimby's Bookstore in Bucktown, Chicago to sign copies of the book and entertain questions about his artistic process. Check it out and you'll learn why he is in great demand as a guest speaker at art schools and poster art conventions around the country.

That he's a quietly hilarious guy only adds personality to the fascinating subject of how Jay creates his exemplary pieces of art -- he won't tell you, but he's the best in his field -- and what it's like to ply an old-school trade in the age of the iPod for America's leading rock stars and most tasteful poster collectors.

My Flavorpill preview is here.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Celebrity secrets

From the halcyon days before the whole Conan "Tonight Show" fiasco, here are some brilliant then-writers for "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" on writing gags for their celebrity guests:

Saturday, December 4, 2010


For some reason, the less I write this week, the more traffic I'm getting. I am trying not to take this personally.

In any event, since my efforts here are clearly pointless, I'm going to take a break until a year or two from now, at which point I ought to be up to about 10,000 readers a day.  See ya!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Monday, November 29, 2010

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Sea and Cake

Shake off the post-turkey doldrums with a gently persuasive rock show by the estimable Sea and Cake.  The indie heroes return to Chicago to play Lincoln Hall tonight.

The evening opens with the catchy folk-pop of fellow hometown act Brighton, MA.

My Flavorpill preview is here.  Meanwhile, here's a representative sample from the Sea and Cake's latest album:

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

Now that my pumpkin, banana and cranberry breads are ready -- by which I mean bought and paid for -- I take a moment to wish you all a happy Thanksgiving. We have a lot to be thankful for.

And in the spirit of the season, enjoy this.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

One ring to rule them all

I think my hand is in that photo somewhere, but let's face it, this snapshot is all about the Chicago Blackhawks championship ring I'm wearing. 

My dad's college roommate spent over forty years as the Blackhawks' public address announcer and still works for the team. In gratitude for his decades of service, the team presented him with the same commemorative jewelry they gave the players after they won the Stanley Cup last June.

I ran into our friend at a charity function the other night. (At least I think it was him; I could hardly see past the glare of his bling.) Being a sport, he let me check it out.

It's the biggest, heaviest ring I've ever put on, assuming it isn't a bracelet. He tells me it weighs over a pound and I'm pretty sure he isn't kidding. This thing is a golf ball-sized cluster of diamonds and precious metal. The above flashless BlackBerry photo doesn't do it justice; it sparkles like Bobby Hull in the NHL constellation of stars. 

It's also engraved with a picture of the Stanley Cup, our friend's name and the years the Hawks won the title. All in all, an excellent keepsake from a thrilling championship season.

Go Hawks.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Seagull

The Goodman Theatre's well-received new production of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull closes this weekend, but you still have a few more chances to see it.  (Wasn't it nice of the Chicago Bears to play on Thursday evening and open up your Sunday afternoon like that?)

Friday, November 19, 2010

Lapti Nek

A friend emailed me:

Sy Snootles and the whole Max Rebo band occupy a very important historical place. Star Wars was awesome; Empire was awesome; the opening scenes of Jedi were awesome, where the droids and later Luke establish themselves at Jabba's. And then came the Rebo band. And then came the rest of Jedi, which mostly rehashed earlier ideas in an unawesome way (Luke going back to Dagobah, the second Death Star). And then came the prequels.

When future historians look back and try to tease out the first flaw that would go on to doom the whole enterprise, I think blame will fall on a flamboyant strange-lipped singer and a blue elephantine keyboardist.

I wholeheartedly agree.

Also: this.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Taking the purple to Pasaden--, uh, down Sheridan Road

Like Northwestern University? The University of Illinois? College football? Wrigley Field?

Then click here.

Friday, November 12, 2010


Do you like circus stunts?  Gymnastics?  Being blown away by highly polished stage shows?

Last night I caught Traces, a hip, downtown version of Cirque du Soleil. Think streetwise twentysomethings, nonchalant cool, skateboards and basketballs, laid-back clothes, music reminiscent of Radiohead and Morcheeba, live camera feeds, piano and guitar, chalk lines and graffiti, and great-looking, deeply impressive performers who create a personal rapport with the audience. A more accessible, less otherworldly presentation than Cirque, and the better for it.

Oh, and did I mention the eye-popping acrobatics?

Previews? My Flavorpill preview is here.  

Reviews? The Chicago Tribune gives it four out of four stars, Time Out Chicago gives it five out of five stars, and the Chicago Sun-Times says "highly recommended."

I rarely gush, but this show is terrific. It didn't just hold my interest; I was rapt, as was everyone else, by the dazzling displays of skill.  It grabs you by the lapels and you can't look away. Plus it sounds great.

The choreography is lively, and also effective on a macro level: the big set pieces are nicely leavened with quieter musical, comedic and dance breaks, and everything keeps moving.

Check it out.

Traces plays Chicago through December 19 January 1 (hot shows get extended) then heads to Los Angeles and elsewhere on its national tour.  More information is here.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

I know, it's only rock and roll...

...but I like it.

As you've probably heard, indestructible Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards has penned an autobiography in which he somewhat incredibly claims to remember the last forty years.  Keith's book has been widely hailed as a gimlet-eyed recollection of a remarkable ride, though apparently he gathered few stories about Jerry Moss.

By coincidence, another celebration of the Stones resumes here in Chicago as the Signal Ensemble Theatre brings back Aftermath, its musical biography of founding guitarist Brian Jones. The play drew raves and national attention during its short, incendiary run at the Raven Theater in Rogers Park last spring. Unfortunately, key cast members had other commitments that prevented its extension.

Signal has since opened its own theater space in the North Center neighborhood, where they've just reassembled the original cast for another run. I caught the opening the first time around and found it punchy and entertaining. (To my surprise, the show was stolen by a guy playing George Harrison.)

My Flavorpill preview of Aftermath is here.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Today's instructions

  1. Stop by Google Maps.
  2. Click on Get Directions.
  3. Request directions from China to Japan.
  4. Read step #42.
  5. Laugh and move on.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Best of the Westchester

I recently happened to be in New York City on the same weekend that the 14th annual Westchester Crossword Tournament was taking place, so I caught a Metro-North train from Grand Central Station up to Pleasantville to check it out.

I've been to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Brooklyn (huge, national, packed with puzzle pros, hosted by Will Shortz) and the Chicago crossword tournament (small, unassuming, local, charming). Westchester was a hybrid of the two (small, unassuming, local, charming, packed with puzzle pros, hosted by Will Shortz).

There were maybe 75 or 100 participants, compared to the over 600 who enter the big national tournament, in a large room at a local church. Upon arrival many people enjoyed coffee and desserts provided by the evening's co-hosts, the friendly staff of the Pleasantville Fund for Learning. Will Shortz provides advance NYT puzzles to crossword tournaments that raise money for charity, and the Fund is the Westchester beneficiary.

Speaking of the venue, as wholesome and vaguely uplifting as it was to gather in a church, this was the last year the tournament will take place there. Will Shortz -- who is such a table tennis enthusiast that it would not be entirely inaccurate to describe him as "table tennis player Will Shortz, who moonlights as editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle" -- is about to open a table tennis club in a building he recently bought in downtown Pleasantville. Next year's Westchester tournament will take place there, which is kind of awesome, and rent-free to boot. I asked Will whether people would be sitting at Ping-Pong tables next year to solve their crosswords, and he said no.

Learning that I was at the sayonara go-round at the church made me feel a simpatico spirit with the people who played in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament during its 30-year run in Stamford, Connecticut. Hundreds of newbie moths like myself were attracted to the flame by the Wordplay movie a few years ago, and the spike in numbers caused the tournament to outgrow its Connecticut hotel and move to Brooklyn.

New York being New York, teeming as it is with crossword cognoscenti, there were plenty of noteworthy puzzle people in attendance. For example, I grabbed a seat next to Ben Pall, a friendly fellow from Bergen County, N.J.  He broke a record last November when, at age 14, he became the youngest person to publish a crossword in the New York Times. His puzzle was good too. (To clarify, I sat next to Ben's mom, presumably at least in part because he is still too young to drive from New Jersey to New York.)

This being Will Shortz's backyard, there were also several dozen New York Times crossword writers in attendance serving as volunteer tournament aides and judges. Having attending a few Brooklyn weekends, I spotted some familiar faces whose names are known to regular NYT solvers, including Fred Piscop, Patrick Blindauer, and Patrick Merrell. Will Shortz's inner circle was also in the house: correspondence manager Paula Gamache, puzzle whisperer Frank Longo, and ace technician Ellen Ripstein.

Because the tournament was a small local event with few bragging rights and no prize money at stake, Will dispensed with the elaborate scoring system familiar to ACPT regulars. In Westchester, as in Chicago, the tournament consisted of three opening rounds in which players solved the following week's Monday through Wednesday New York Times crosswords. The fastest correct solver of each puzzle would become a finalist, and in turn race each other through the following Thursday's puzzle. Three of the four tournament puzzle constructors were in attendance.

I finished roughly 160th at both ACPTs I attended, which is respectable but hardly amazing, and I knew there were so many strong players at Westchester that I had little chance to be a finalist. What I didn't stop to consider was that there was a fastest-rookie trophy on the line. This is where I made a rookie mistake, in both senses.

Before the tournament started I was chatting with some friends, lost track of time, and turned around to see the event was about to begin, so I hastily grabbed the only open seat in view. The Palls were seated on my left, and on my right was Bob Mackey, a ridiculously fast puzzle solver.

Bob is a delightful guy, but in hindsight I can't help but wonder whether the seat next to him was open for a reason. He blazed through the puzzles so fast that it got in my head a little. I wasn't looking at his paper, but I'd see him raise his hand and turn in each puzzle when I was only halfway done. This was slightly unnerving as I've grown accustomed to finishing before most of the people around me, and he had me beaten every time by a country mile.

Will Shortz announced that the third puzzle of the tournament would determine the winners of various awards (the rookie division, plus junior and senior age categories). I was seated with my back to most of the room, so by the time that puzzle rolled around, I'd started to feel as if there were 100 savants like Bob in the room, and bringing up the rear, me.

This set the stage for my rookie mistake: failing to stop and consider that for the only trophy I had a chance of winning, I was not likely playing against the super-speedsters like Bob. Although I'm reasonably fast myself, I raced so frantically through the trophy puzzle that I didn't notice there were still two blank squares on the otherwise correct grid I turned in. Had I noticed the omissions I would have put in the correct letters, but I was rushing so quickly that I didn't realize the puzzle was incomplete.

This stupid blunder cost me rookie of the year honors, which go to the first correct puzzle submitted by a new participant. 2001 ACPT champion and tournament judge Ellen Ripstein later told me that I was three and a half minutes faster than the winner of the rookie title, but my two blank squares disqualified me. To put this in perspective, I recently solved an entire Monday NYT crossword in under three minutes.

Now I know why no one wants the stall next to Tiger Woods at the driving range. Bob won the tournament, by the way.

I feel like shaking my fist and saying "Mackey!", but it's not Bob's fault I failed to keep mind over matter and overreacted to his impressive performance, so: (shakes fist) Bass!

I did, however, get an excellent consolation prize when Will Shortz gave me the award for having traveled the furthest to attend the tournament. This was perhaps not completely accurate in that I'd come to New York primarily to attend the New Yorker Festival, but as I'd flown in from Chicago that morning, I felt within my rights to accept the honor. In classic Shortz style, Will also presented an award to the person who'd traveled the shortest distance: a lady who lived across the street.

Award winners were invited to take their pick from a table full of puzzle books, games, dictionaries and the like. I grabbed a copy of "Will Shortz Presents Puzzle-A-Day KenKen," featuring the sudoku-style logic puzzle that shot to prominence a few years ago when Will started running it every day in the New York Times. After the tournament there were plenty of prizes left over and all were invited to take one home.

As at Brooklyn and Chicago, though, the Westchester tournament wasn't so much about competing or winning as it was about camaraderie, warmth, and the relatively novel experience of having crosswords become a group activity and social conduit rather than the solitary armchair pursuit they usually are. It's all about the people.

The folks who come out for crossword events are -- without a single exception I've met, at least -- bright, friendly, curious, involved, literate, accomplished people. They all have stories to tell, plus there's the comparing notes on puzzles in general. Every time I leave a crossword tournament I think to myself, that would have been just as much fun without any puzzles.

It wasn't all about crosswords either. Will Shortz is also the NPR puzzlemaster and between rounds he invited the room to play some casual brain teasers. Not surprisingly, everyone was up for it, and Will presented all kinds of word games ranging from fairly straightforward to quite challenging. I write the occasional puzzle for Will to use on Weekend Edition Sunday so I felt right at home.

I won't repeat the puzzles Will gave us because he's been using some of them on the radio, but I will share the following. At one point, an attractive young Indian woman solved a word puzzle. Will asked her name, which was Usha. She spelled it for him: U-S-H-A.

Immediately wheels started turning in this room full of crossword constructors, and a few people chuckled, because as Will explained, her name happens to be perfect for a crossword puzzle. Short names that begin and end with vowels (ETTA, ELLA, ARTE, AIDA) or rather short words like that in general (ANTE, ERA, ARIA, IRE) are usually needed to complete a grid, so they're disproportionately represented in crosswords.

Will asked Usha what she did for a living. I forget her reply, but it was a brainy, anonymous-type job like chemist or schoolteacher. You could feel the mild disappointment in the room that Usha was not a Tony-winning composer or a former Secretary of Agriculture. Will asked another open-ended question or two, clearly hoping to learn that she had discovered an element or won the New York City Marathon. Unfortunately, her replies suggested a life of gentle obscurity.

As Will struggled to find grounds to add Usha's name to the crossword lexicon, everyone was lost in thought and there was a short lull. I couldn't resist breaking the silence by asking from across the room, "Would you be willing to murder a celebrity?"

If you live in greater New York City and you like crossword puzzles, then by all means visit Brooklyn in March for the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, but don't overlook the less prominent, similarly enjoyable Westchester version. It will only get better next year with the intriguing possibility of a crossword-table tennis biathlon.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

It's all about editing

Nitpicking yesterday's Chicago Tribune sports section:

1. A photo caption declares that with six victories, Chicago Blackhawks goalie Marty Turco is tied for the NHL lead, but the accompanying article says he's tied for second in the league.

2. Matt Bowen's column is entitled "Proper use of week off key." If anything is off key it's this ambiguous headline about the Bears' bye week.

3. A story fails to correct NASCAR driver Kevin Harvick's reference to auto racing as a "sport."

Things we wish we wrote

Sometimes you awake with a start at 5 a.m. for no particular reason and wander over to the computer to check your email, then you're on Facebook, then you're surfing around and you come across something great like this.

Monday, November 1, 2010

America begs to differ

After being knocked out of yesterday's game with a chin gash that required 10 stitches, Brett Favre assured reporters he'd be ready to play on Sunday:

"I'm fine. Nobody knows my body like me. There's plenty of times I should have been knocked out but I wasn't. So I think I'll be all right."

Actually, Brett, at this point, everybody knows your body like you.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloween chills

The Daily Show is making Washington D.C. available in high definition.

Regular definition is enough, thank you.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Definitely maybe

"Let's remember, over the last two and a half months of the season, arguably Sanchez was the Giants' best picher, without a doubt."

–Fox TV's Chris Rose, covering all bases on the World Series Game 3 pregame show

Friday, October 29, 2010

Hawaii Five-0 recap

What we learned on Hawaii Five-0 this week:

CBS has made so much money from the CSI franchise and/or America's leading comedian, Charlie Sheen, that they can peel off 20 grand to throw a snippet of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Higher Ground" into their slick new cop show.

Ben Bass is a stud.

Ben Bass cares about the ocean.

Little Hawaiian girls like to make bracelets for Ben Bass.  

Ben Bass surfs exclusively for Coral Prince.  Accept no substitutes.

I actually did go scuba diving once... the Great Barrier Reef... Cairns, North Queensland, Australia...

...ah, memories.

OK, back to the other Ben Bass.

Ben Bass cares about fragile wetlands.

Chicks dig Ben Bass.

Ben Bass is suspected of what?!

It's all good.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Matt Besser says...

Because I cover comedy and theater for a popular arts website, I often receive press releases about live performances, movies and television shows. On occasion I mention them here.

Matt Besser, Upright Citizens Brigade co-founder, comedy guru, nasal prankster, gentleman philosopher, has checked in with news on his latest sketch comedy project.  I love me some UCB, so let's help Matt spread the word.

More after the break.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Aloha, Ben Bass

As some of you know, particularly the Canucks who Google their way here every day, there's an actor named Ben Bass who starred on a hit television show in Canada and currently appears on an ABC-TV police drama called Rookie Blue. I've been meaning to write about him in this space for a while now.

But before I could do so, I got an interesting tip this morning from a friend. Apparently on last night's episode of CBS' Hawaii Five-0 there was a character called Ben Bass. Not the actor Ben Bass, but a character that someone chose to name Ben Bass.

So Hollywood's cop shows aren't just throwing work at actual Ben Basses, they're adding fictional Ben Basses when they can't get a real one. It's all about Ben Bass these days! Of course, I have long felt that way, but no one ever seems to agree with me.

What was the character Ben Bass like? As my friend reports, "A heartthrob, no less. Got to kiss Grace Park and everything." Naturally. Ben Basses are suave.

Take the aforementioned actor Ben Bass.  Apparently he is quite the stud, judging from the "ben bass married", "ben bass is hot", "ben bass girlfriend", "ben bass gay" and "ben bass shirtless" searches that pop up in my blog traffic.

But just in case these Googlers were actually looking for me, the answers to the above queries are 1. No,  2. Thanks,  3. No,  4. Despite all appearances, no  and  5. Really? People use the Internet for that sort of thing?

Getting back to Hawaii Five-0, in the incredibly unlikely event that a TV show with a character named Ben Bass is of any interest to anyone besides myself and the slightly less dashing actor with the same name, you can watch last night's episode, "Ko'olauloa," here.

Monday, October 25, 2010

OK, Buffy fans...

Explain this:


Friday, October 22, 2010

Ripped from the headlines

On the morning the United-Continental merger became official a few weeks ago, I happened to be flying United from its Terminal 1 at O'Hare airport in Chicago.

The pilot announced that changes were already underway. In fact, he said, the first plane had just been painted to show both airlines, and it was visible to our left.

Since I always take a window seat on the left, I was able to see what he meant:

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Just asking

While watching the highly entertaining National League Championship Series, I learned the Phillies have a player called Ben Francisco.

Do the Giants have a guy called Phil Adelphia?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Big Ten Football and Beyond

After three years of banging away at this blog -- three years this week, in fact -- I've developed a bias toward more or less anything with the word "beyond" in the title.

Still, I have to give props to my new favorite television show: "Big Ten Football and Beyond." It's on the Big Ten Network. What are the odds?

"BTF&B" is a weekly roundtable discussion of quaint handicrafts, with a particular emphasis on macramé and pottery.

No it's not, just seeing if you were paying attention. It is, of course, all about the pigskin, huge midwestern state school style.

As you may know, since Penn State joined up in 1990, there are actually eleven teams in the Big Ten. Next year, when Nebraska defects from the Big 12, there will be twelve teams in the Big Ten, and ten teams in the Big 12. Got that?

Helping us make sense of all this, not to mention the weekly games around the league and the nation, are the show's four panelists:
  • The moderator par excellence is Dave Revsine, a Chicago native and "SportsCenter" host whom the Big Ten Network hired away from ESPN to install as its marquee anchor. He's a rock-solid broadcaster who lends credibility to the entire network.
  • Then you've got Chicago Tribune college football expert Teddy Greenstein, a walking sound bite machine. With his authoritative analysis and wisecracking humor, he's in constant demand on Chicago sports TV and radio. (He's also a poker buddy of yours truly.)
  • Rounding out the panel are Chris Martin and Gerry DiNardo, two guys gradually burning off the remaining adrenaline from their college football playing days by constantly attacking each other.

Speaking of my biases, I like that three of these four guys went to Northwestern, my law school alma mater. Teddy was the prince of the Medill sportswriting program; "Revver" went there too, plus his dad was a longtime Kellogg accounting professor; and "C-Mart" played on the miraculous 1995 Wildcats football team that ran away with the Big Ten and went to the Rose Bowl. Coach DiNardo went to Notre Dame, but he seems like a decent guy.

Putting the show over the top is the national football writer who comes on every week to break down the country's biggest matchups. This gentleman probably weighs 130 pounds soaking wet and comes across as a wispy accountant for the Keebler corporation, but he knows his college football cold and talks like a sophisticated NFL scout. He just happens to look like the captain of the high school math team. It's the converse of casting Lyle Alzado as a sensitive florist.

The weird thing about how much I enjoy this show is, I'm not even that into college football. I just like listening to people who really know their stuff, particularly if they're funny. Plus it's a convenient way to keep up with the game's big stories, its enduring rivalries, the Heisman race, America's ongoing dissatisfaction with the Bowl Championship Series, and the unsolvable problem that is Boise State.

I'd actually rather watch this show than the biggest game of the week. I'm content just catching the Northwestern game and hearing the Big Ten and national reports from these guys.

If you get the Big Ten Network, check out "Big Ten Football and Beyond."

Saturday, October 16, 2010

On an off day you can miss forever

If you dedicate yourself to the sport, you can break two nonadjacent strings on the same shot.

Relatedly, a few months ago I broke four adjacent strings, but it did not occur to me to take a picture.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

And speaking of comedy...

Jeffrey Ross, aka "the Roastmaster General," plays Zanies on Wells Street tonight.

My Flavorpill preview is here.

Birbigs and beyond

The prolific comedian Mike Birbiglia headlines the Vic Theatre this weekend. My Flavorpill preview is here.

To get us in the mood, here's "Two Drink Mike" performing at the Just For Laughs comedy festival in Montreal:

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Friday, October 8, 2010

Brits and bits

Scottish comedian Billy Connolly plays the Royal George Theatre this weekend and next.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Malcolm Gladwell on "The Magical Year 1975"

In his New Yorker Festival talk, Malcolm Gladwell argued that 1975 was the watershed year that talent in America started to get paid what it was worth.

Predictably, he spoke at some length about Marvin Miller, the visionary leader of the baseball players' union who led the ballplayers from indentured servitude to a promised land of princely riches.

In an early meeting with San Francisco Giants players at their spring training camp in Scottsdale, Ariz., Miller was having trouble convincing his charges that they were entitled to earn more than the relative pittance to which they had grown accustomed.

Miller singled out Bobby Bonds, then one of the best players in the game, who like many players often had his young son in tow around camp. The younger Bonds was already showing signs of baseball greatness.

Miller told the players that if they followed the template set by other American labor unions, and if Bonds' son one day made it to the major leagues, he would earn more in one season than his father had made in his entire career.

Not only did that come to pass, but the $22 million that Barry Bonds earned in 2002 was more than Bobby Bonds and all of his teammates made in their entire careers combined.

Gladwell also described the frosty relationship between the feisty, confrontational, Fu Manchu-mustachioed Miller and baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn, whom Miller viewed as an effete, weak-willed, bow tie-wearing, whisky-sipping Ivy Leaguer.

At one point Kuhn complained that Miller would not join him for a friendly meal. Miller responded that Kuhn merely wanted to pick his brain, and that the prospects for a reciprocal benefit were slim.

Gladwell also told of the current irrationality of both income and perspective at the highest levels of the American economy:

Sunday, October 3, 2010

That's the spirit

A lot of people get into the New Yorker Festival,
but this hotel went overboard.

Steve Carell on Hollywood

At his New Yorker Festival conversation with Tad Friend this morning, Steve Carell described the absurdity of living in Hollywood:

"We live around the corner from Miley Cyrus. One day my daughter decided to set up a lemonade stand at the end of our driveway. She was selling glasses of lemonade for 25 cents.

"Her first customer was Billy Ray Cyrus. He was out walking his dog. He gave her 20 dollars for a glass of lemonade.

"There are always tons of paparazzi outside the Cyrus house. All the paparazzi came around the corner to buy lemonade. They also gave big tips.

"Then the cops who chase the paparazzi away, they came around the block and bought lemonade. They paid a lot too.

"After an hour my daughter came inside with like 60 or 70 dollars. She was convinced that she could do this for a living. She had been completely misled.

"I tried to explain that this was not how the world worked. She was like, 'I'm buying a laptop!' "

Try not to like this

I may be running around New York City all weekend but, dear readers, I haven't forgotten about you. Both of you.

In my absence, enjoy these giant bubbles:

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Strictly personal

Congratulations to my brother Ari Bass and his longtime girlfriend Sarah Ingram on the exciting news of their wedding engagement.

I'm pleased that the ten-year trial period has proven a success. It's somewhat redundant at this point to say welcome to the family, Sarah, but welcome to the family.

Very happy for you both!

Sexual chocolate


The Waldorf-Astoria looks beautiful this morning in the eastern sunlight, but why aren't they flying the national flag of Zamunda over Park Avenue? What would King Jaffe Joffer say?

Friday, October 1, 2010

Today's thought

Not all flight delays are objectionable.

For example, the two short bump-backs that held up my New York trip by 40 minutes not only didn't bother me, they enabled me to watch from United's Terminal 1 today's live White House press conference featuring two of my favorite Chicagoans, Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel.

The president just announced the worst-kept secret in Washington, that "Rahmbo" is leaving his post as Obama's chief of staff to run for mayor of Chicago. I hope he wins and would gladly tolerate the minor inconvenience of living a block from what would become the mayor's residence.

As for flight delays, the poor souls who opted for the 8:30 a.m. flight to LaGuardia were still hanging around O'Hare when I arrived for my 11:03 flight. Had I booked the "earlier" departure, all I would have done is sit around the airport rather than enjoy the splendor of stately Bass Manor. Sometimes the glass is two-thirds full.

New Yorker Festival preview

I will be spending the weekend in New York City, or as I call it, "Bedbugs and Beyond."

The primary reason for my trip is to attend the 2010 New Yorker Festival, the New Yorker magazine's annual three-day throwdown. Tickets to nearly all events are still available, even those that sold out online a few weeks ago. Ten percent of tickets were held back and will be on sale today from noon to 4 p.m. at SVA Theatre, 333 West 23rd Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. First come, first served.  A limited number of tickets will also be sold at the door beginning an hour before most events. Cash only.

Much more information about the Festival is here, or for those of you unwilling to read anything other than this blog (which I totally get), just sit back and watch this video summary of last year's version. I think I recognize the guy at the 3:00 mark:

Edit: Thousands of angry readers have emailed me to complain that this embedded video does not play properly, and they're correct.

Click here to watch it on the video section of the New Yorker's website, where it does work. Scroll down about halfway, or further as they continue to add videos from this year's Festival.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Greg Giraldo 1965-2010

Comedian Greg Giraldo, a brilliant joke writer and veteran roast comic, has died of a prescription drug overdose. He was a divorced father of three children.

The Columbia University and Harvard Law School graduate's smarts shone through his every onstage rant and pointed barb. His New York Times obituary is here.

Rest in peace, Greg.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

14th Westchester Crossword Tournament


Do you live in greater New York City and like crossword puzzles? Live nowhere near there, like crosswords and enjoy air travel?

Either way, sharpen your pencil and attend the 14th Westchester Crossword Tournament, hosted by New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz this Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the St. John's Episcopal Church in Pleasantville, N.Y.

The tournament puzzles are unpublished Monday through Thursday crosswords that will soon appear in the New York Times.  The event benefits the Pleasantville Fund for Learning, a nonprofit charitable organization that funds educational enrichment by making grants to students and teachers in the local school district.

More information is here.

Louis CK

Memo to anyone into things that are awesome:

Among the handful of truly exceptional standups working today is Louis CK, who plays two shows Saturday night at the Chicago Theatre. The 8pm show is sold out, but tickets are still available for the 11pm. I'll be out of town so enjoy it extra much for me.

My Flavorpill preview is here.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

It's New Yorker Festival week!

You're going, right?  For the seventh straight year?  No, wait, that's me.

To get us into the spirit of the New Yorker's annual celebration of arts and ideas, here's a full-length video of the "Political Humor" panel discussion I attended at last year's Festival.

New Yorker features editor Susan Morrison moderates the lively chitchat with comedy writers Samantha Bee (The Daily Show), Andy Borowitz (general Andy Borowitzitude), longtime Saturday Night Live veteran Jim DowneyThe Onion's resident depressive genius Todd Hanson, and Allison Silverman (Late Night with Conan O'Brien, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report).


Monday, September 27, 2010

New Yorker iPad app

I don't have an iPad, nor do I plan to.

Still, I like the New Yorker, so as a public service to my fellow enthusiasts, here's an instructional video about the magazine's new iPad app, starring Jason Schwartzman and directed by Roman Coppola:

If you're more the reading than the viewing type, here's an interesting note from the New Yorker editors on the same subject.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Peter Serafinowicz

That is my tip of the day.

I'd never heard of the guy until recently, when I was chatting with a comedy savant and friend of this blog. I mentioned that I was Facebook friends with a hilarious comedian who is a walking humor machine. His Facebook page is a constant stream of amusing status updates, not joke material exactly, just the funny things that apparently occur to this guy nonstop.

My friend also knew the guy, and said her equivalent was an English comedian called Peter Serafinowicz. I trust her opinion implicitly -- not only is she hilarious herself, she also happens to be married to one of my favorite standup comedians -- so I took her at her word and made a mental note to look for P.S.'s work.

Then the other day I was listening to Will Arnett on the Howard Stern radio show. He was very funny, obviously a huge Stern fan which made the whole exercise that much more entertaining, and a few interesting details came out (his father was the CEO of Molson when he was growing up in Toronto; he was briefly married to Penelope Ann Miller ten years before marrying Amy Poehler).

He was there to promote his new Fox sitcom, "Running Wilde," and sang the praises of the British guy on the show: Peter Serafinowicz.

If my friend and Will Arnett both like this guy, there must be a lot to like.

Trust me. Peter Serafinowicz.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

My word!

Super-smart people fascinate me, especially the ones who apply their talents in ways that benefit the rest of us.

Take FOBB&B Joon Pahk. When not teaching at Harvard or parenting his two kids, he's usually contributing something to the world of puzzles and word games. He writes crosswords for newspapers around the country, blogs about them at, serves as faculty advisor to his school's crossword club, and makes puzzle tournaments that much more interesting just by showing up (and usually winning).

Joon's latest venture is an ingenious word game applet called Guess my word! in which you try to, well, guess his word. For every wrong guess, the computer tells you whether the secret word is alphabetically before or after your guess. Then you keep guessing until you get it right or give up.

There's a leaderboard that tracks the fastest and most efficient guessers of the day and shows their guess sequences. Joon chooses a new word every day, and you can also play his words from over the preceding week as well as the words chosen by a shadowy figure named Mike.

As in every puzzle or word game, there's a strategy facet.  I try to zero in by guessing words roughly halfway into the set of remaining possible words. For example, my first guess starts with M, the 13th letter of the 26 in the alphabet.

Joon tends to choose longer, less conventional words, so the other technique I've started using is to begin with short guesses (man, top, pet) and guess longer words as I get closer to the target since the answer is going to be one of them (raffish, rainmaker, raiment).

Sometimes I solve it; other times I get close but don't think of the answer and give up.  Since it's on a computer, I should probably come back to it an hour or two later, as that is often the way to break through a crossword corner or NPR puzzle.

Try it, you'll like it.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Moments from the 2010 U.S. Open


6'1" Mahesh Bhupathi and 6'5" Max Mirnyi are an imposing doubles team, but the Argentinian duo Eduardo Schwank and Horacio Zeballos managed to hit a lob winner over the Indian Davis Cup hero and the "Beast of Belarus" en route to an upset over the #4 seeds.

18-year-old American Ryan Harrison had quite a fortnight, earning a spot in the U.S. Open main draw by winning three matches in the qualifying tournament, then stunning 15th seed Ivan Ljubicic in the first round. His thrilling ride ended in the next match when he couldn't close out a fifth-set tiebreak against Ukraine's Sergiy Stakhovsky, losing the last five points after building a 6-3 lead.


Still, he learned a lot and raised his ranking from 220 to 180.  Here he plays doubles with fellow American singles qualifier Robert Kendrick.

Even the #2 doubles team in the world needs to practice, and that's what Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic are doing here.

Last year's American teen sensation, Melanie Oudin, beat four straight Russians including Maria Sharapova and Elena Dementieva en route to a surprise appearance in the quarterfinals. Largely on the strength of that run, she entered this year's tournament ranked 43rd. 

Here she hits a few practice balls with this 13-year-old kid, whose name I didn't catch but who looked good enough to win a few rounds himself:

I didn't stay at The Benjamin, but I liked the name.

Jim Courier spent 58 weeks as world #1 and still holds the record for being the youngest player to have reached all four major tennis tournament finals (age 22). Plus, he just always seems like a good guy. Here he signs a few autographs after calling Gael Monfils' straight-set win over French countryman Richard Gasquet as part of CBS' Labor Day coverage.

Good advice, though the 136 m.p.h. serves are less likely to clear the wall than the overheads are.

Built into the northeast corner of Arthur Ashe Stadium is an elegant restaurant called the U.S. Open Club. It's beautifully catered by Chicago's own Levy Restaurants and a welcome respite from all the punishing sunshine.

At their lunch buffet I ran into an old Wrigley Field vendor buddy and ended up joining him in his Louis Armstrong Stadium box for a few games. 

You get more nuance from a courtside seat than you do on TV. 2009 semifinalist Yanina Wickmayer  kept casting aggrieved glances toward her team, seated just in front of us, as she went down in three sets to the upstart Estonian Kaia Kanepi

Minutes later, we heard the wind eerily whistling through the strings of huge-hitting #5 Robin Soderling as he took down Albert Montanes in four sets. Oh, does he crush it.

Another view from up close.

I've been lucky enough to see world #1 doubles team Bob and Mike Bryan play at three of the four Grand Slam tournaments. They recently supplanted Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge as the winningest pair of all time and added to their résumé by winning this tournament for their 65th title. 

Bob is the fiery, big-serving lefty, Mike is the steady, solid-returning righty, and together they're nearly unbeatable: their reactions are instantaneous, they're consistent as hell, and like the best improv teams they play with one group mind. I loved these guys even before Bob threw me a towel the other day.

They put the lefty on the deuce court to get their forehands up the middle and the steadier returner on the ad side. Maybe if I did that instead of returning with my lefty forehand out wide, I'd get Bryan-like results. Maybe not.

Bob and Liezel Huber justified their #1 seed by winning the mixed doubles tournament. In this quarterfinal match against Lisa Raymond and Wesley Moodie, they make things extra tough for their opponents by each serving a ball at the same time.

The next morning at Grand Central Station I hopped a shuttle to LaGuardia airport. A moment after I took this unintentionally arty photo of the iconic facade, Jim Courier jumped out of a taxi beside me. Much like when he played, the guy is everywhere.

Appropriately for such a sporty trip, my return flight started with Yankee Stadium...

...and ended with Lincoln Park Tennis Club.