Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Thursday, June 24, 2010


Yesterday at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, more commonly referred to by its neighborhood in SW19, London ("Wimbledon"), American John Isner and Frenchman Nicolas Mahut continued playing the most improbable tennis match of all time.

It all started on Monday as a routine first-round match for Isner, a rising pro player who'd led the University of Georgia Bulldogs to a 32-0 season and the 2007 NCAA championship. More recently the big-serving, 6'9" American won his first pro tournament in Auckland, New Zealand and cracked the world Top 20 for the first time.

His first opponent at Wimbledon, Mahut, was a somewhat obscure journeyman who'd qualified for a spot in the Wimbledon main draw by winning three consecutive matches in the qualifying tournament that precedes every major tournament.  So he was hot, but then again not ranked high enough for a direct entry into the event.  It figured to be quick work for the seeded Isner.

Their match started Tuesday on Court 18, where they battled to two sets apiece and after 2 hours 54 minutes, finally stopped on account of darkness.

They returned to Court 18 Wednesday to play the fifth and final set.  The U.S. Open is the only Grand Slam tournament that has a fifth-set tiebreak, so Mahut and Isner would play until someone had six games won with at least a two-game lead.

They played to 6-6, then 7-7, then 8-8, and on it went. Some were reminded of last year's Wimbledon final, in which Andy Roddick pushed Roger Federer to what seemed like the outer limits before Federer triumphed 16-14 in the final set to win his 6th Wimbledon title.

But Isner and Mahut quickly blew past that threshold.  Each was serving bombs and holding serve routinely, often at love.  Break points were few and far between.

The other marathon match many tennis fans remember also involved Roddick:  his 2003 Australian Open quarterfinal against Younes El Aynaoui.  Roddick won 21-19 in the fifth set.

Isner and Mahut made those matches look like the best of three tiebreak sets.  On and on they played. 24-24.  30-29.  35-35.  41-40.  46-46.

We went to lunch for my birthday at something like 28-all.  It was a slow, leisurely lunch at a nice restaurant.  Then we ran a few local errands.  When we got back to the office, we were stunned to find the match was still going on.

Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, we were able to watch the day's last few games live on the computer.  Mahut double-faulted at 58-59 to give Isner his fourth match point (he'd had one at 10-9 and a pair at 33-32), but Mahut blasted an ace up the T to get back to deuce, then won the game to get to 59-59.

At that point, it was after 9 p.m. London time, and Mahut complained to the chair umpire that he could no longer see the ball.  So after 7 hours 6 minutes (so far) of fifth-set play (!), 10 hours total (!!), they agreed to return Wednesday to conclude, or at least continue, the match.

There is so much incredible stuff from this match, anecdotally, historically, and of course statistically.  I have to catch a train now but I will throw in some more thoughts later.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Lord Stanley, I presume

A few of the Chicago Blackhawks stopped by the Chicago Theatre yesterday to show Ellen DeGeneres  their new hardware.

The comedian hosted "Ellen's Somewhat Special Special" as part of the Just For Laughs Chicago Festival.

Cuckoo for Coco

Conan O'Brien's live show has already hit the Chicago Theatre and moved on to points south, but his writers take center stage tonight as part of the Just For Laughs Chicago Festival.

In Team Coco Presents: The Conan Writers Live, the guys (and they are all guys) who write the bits for late night's smartest silly show, and silliest smart show, step out from the writers' room and grab the mike. Many of them are seasoned standups and this show is consistently selling out in Los Angeles as the countdown to Conan's new TBS vehicle continues.

Likewise, tonight's show (sorry, didn't mean to almost say "Tonight Show") is a hot ticket despite the inexplicable absence from the lineup of the three most prominent Chicago comedy scene alumni, not counting Andy Richter, on Conan's writing staff.

And on a personal note, having been fortunate enough to make repeated backstage visits to Conan's NBC show over the years, I can assure you that these gentlemen are seriously funny.

My Flavorpill preview is here.

Schad in the dark

FOBB&Bs Schadenfreude headline the Just For Laughs festival tonight with their new show, "The City That Works." The hilarious sketch comedy veterans are joined by Rhymefest, Eddie & JoBo, and The Jordan Years.

Martyr's, 3855 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago, 9pm.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Slim Aziz

The great Aziz Ansari plays the Just For Laughs Festival tonight and tomorrow night.  My Flavorpill preview is here.

To get you in the mood, here's Aziz on Letterman:

Press here

I appeared today on The Lunchbox, Chicago Public Radio's weekly live chat, to discuss the Just For Laughs Chicago comedy festival. Other panelists included Darel Jevens of the Chicago Sun-Times, Justin Kaufmann of WBEZ, Andrew Huff of Gapers Block, Madeline Nusser of Time Out Chicago, and Ernest Wilkins of

Because it was online, not broadcast, the live chat resulted in an instant transcript. Check it out here.

Very funny

I used to hit Aspen, Colorado every March to attend the HBO U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, an annual celebration of the funny in all its forms. It was a highlight of my year, every year.

Back in the prehistoric days before I had a blog, I wrote about the 2007 Aspen festival for the website of my buds in the comedy group Schadenfreude (links to the four installments are here) and chipped in some jokes to the comedy site The Bastion here.

Sadly, all good things must eventually end, and the Aspen festival was no exception; the 2007 go-round was the last one. The reasons for its demise were many, and once I did have a blog I wrote about them here.

The Aspen festival left behind a lesser remnant in something called The Comedy Festival, a November showcase of big-name standups in Las Vegas. Nice enough, but a far cry from the diverse array of sketch, standup, improv, film, panels, special events, reunions, and fresh faces (not to mention mountains) in Aspen, and not worth traveling for.

Enter Just For Laughs, the other 800-pound gorilla on the North American comedy festival scene. Proprietors of an established, successful comedy throwdown in Montreal every July, they're now planning a major expansion of their brand. They'd like to become the premier presenter of live comedy in the U.S. in the way that HBO is known for the best comedy on television.

Last summer they did a trial run with a few weeklong comedy festivals in cities around the U.S., including Chicago. Our town scored big so they're back this year with the 2010 Just For Laughs Chicago Festival, which looks about a third of the way from Vegas to Aspen in its ambition and range. There's a lot of serviceable standup from well-known performers, but they've booked some more interesting one-off events as well. Plus you don't even have to get to Pitkin County, Colorado (although you do have to get to Chicago, jet-setting readership).

I'll be covering the festival this week for Flavorpill Chicago and presenting my picks here as the fest rolls on. But don't wait to hear from me, as tickets are moving fast and many shows will sell out; some already have.

You can check out the full festival lineup and buy tickets here.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Falling a little shortz

Millions of people know Will Shortz as a friend of this blog. He also happens to edit the New York Times crossword and serve as the puzzlemaster for NPR Weekend Edition Sunday.

In the latter gig, Will presents a new brain teaser every week for his listeners to solve; some of them he writes, others come from his friends and listeners. From time to time, Will gives me the thrill of using on the air a puzzle I submit to him.

More often than not, the puzzles I write are spinoffs of puzzles he presents on the radio. Either I stumble upon a new puzzle while solving one, or else the current puzzle gets me thinking about the subject and I come up with something.

Unfortunately, not every puzzle I email to Will ends up on the radio. Some of them he thinks he's heard before, and others are somehow just a little lacking. This week I submitted one that fell into the latter category.

Last week's puzzle came from listener Al Gorey:

A "spoonerism" is when you interchange the initial consonant sounds of two words to get two new words. For example, with "right lane," you'd get "light rain."
Think of a familiar two-word phrase that's an instruction seen on many containers. Spoonerize it to name two things seen at the beach. What's the phrase and what are the things?

That puzzle, not too hard but pretty nifty, got me thinking about spoonerisms. I started spoonerizing names of celebrities in my mind, and in fairly short order came up with the following puzzle:

Spoonerize the full name of a well-known actress, then change the second letter to a T. The result will sound like something she did throughout her autobiography.

I thought this one had a good chance to get on the radio; although the wordplay isn't quite ideal, it's a reasonably elegant extension of the existing puzzle. Unfortunately, Will emailed that because the spoonerism was imperfect, he didn't love it quite enough to use on the air. (Gracious as ever, he also called it a neat find and thanked me for the offer.)

Oh well, the road to satisfaction is paved with near-misses.  Nolan Ryan had 12 one-hitters on the way to his record 7 no-hitters, and Roger Federer made 23 straight semifinals in winning 16 majors.

It reminds me of New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff, a friend of both Will Shortz and this blog. When he rejects cartoonists' submissions, he suggests they submit 100 more.

Like them, I'll keep banging away, and sooner or later I'll have another puzzle on the radio. Either way, the fun is in the trying.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Congratulations the 2010 National Hockey League champion Chicago Blackhawks.

At center above, team captain and Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jonathan Toews kisses the Stanley Cup.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

But enough about me

People who write about themselves in public fall into a few broad categories:
  • You've got your legendary diarists who left important works behind (Samuel Pepys, Anne Frank).
  • Then you've got your more conventional narrators who recount interesting careers or family lives (Brendan Gill, Tad Friend).
  • For some writers who take center stage, the subject is a mere vehicle for the style (Bill Bryson, David Foster Wallace).
  • Further down the ladder are your celebrity attention whores (Tori Spelling, Burt Reynolds, a thousand others) and your more obscure egomaniacs (ahem).
  • Then there are the tell-all types whose use their laptops as psychiatrist's couches, unburdening themselves with painfully honest true confessionals (Candace Bushnell, Armistead Maupin).

The undisputed rock star of the final category is David Sedaris, the literary alchemist whose trademark blend of Ira Glass and Larry David continues to produce two useful by-products: adulation and money.

It's a rare memoirist who can draw any kind of live audience, much less sell out the Chicago Theatre, but Sedaris is that guy. His wryly amusing, occasionally cringeworthy narratives have built a slavish following that can't get enough of him.

Me, I don't read him much -- nothing against him, but his occasional New Yorker essay is enough to satisfy my curiosity -- but certainly respect his triumphant success.

Sedaris' latest coup is a weeklong gig reading from his new book at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, which started tonight.  

My Flavorpill preview is here (scroll down).

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Quote of the day

While calling today's French Open men's final on NBC, Ted Robinson mentioned that the talented American junior Andrea Collarini had just lost in the boys' final, which meant that a young John McEnroe remained the last American to win the French Open junior title.

Working the booth with Robinson, McEnroe replied, "I played during the men's final. In '77, Ted, while Gottfried and Vilas were playing. There was three people watching my match. The USTA coach, the Australian coach and a homeless guy."

Friday, June 4, 2010


People sometimes tell me they don't know what the hell I'm talking about, but it's pretty rare that even I don't know.

That happened to me today when my trusty traffic meter revealed that someone surfed into this site from Levice, Nitra, Slovakia and read it in their native tongue (Slovakian?).

I couldn't resist taking a look at an Eastern European version of my blog, which looks like an explosion in a type foundry. It turns out that BEN BASS AND BEYOND translates to BEN BASS A NA ĎALŠIE ROKY, which is also what the marquee looked like the night I headlined the Slovakia Theater with Roky Erickson.

Check out the translated version here, where you'll "enjoy" it as much as you do the original.

(smirks haughtily like Steve Martin) Oh, right... some of us don't speak Slovakian.

Thursday, June 3, 2010


A lot of streaks are ending lately:
  • Roger Federer's 23 consecutive Grand Slam semifinal appearances, and if Rafael Nadal wins the French Open on Sunday, Federer's current run as world #1.
  • The Northwestern University women's lacrosse team's 5 consecutive national championships, which ended in the 2010 title game last weekend as the University of Maryland erased a 6-0 deficit en route to a comeback victory. "Oh no you don't," the Terrapins might as well have said as they prevented Northwestern from further approaching their own record 7 consecutive NCAA titles.
  • The Chicago Blackhawks' 7 consecutive road playoff victories.
  • Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga's 27 consecutive batters retired -- oops, make that 26.  With Galarraga one out away from a perfect game last night, umpire Jim Joyce blew a call at first base and cost the young pitcher his bid for baseball immortality.
  • Al and Tipper Gore's 40 years of marriage.
  • And on a more somber note, Gary Coleman's 42 years of life.
To mark the end of these streaks, I did not streak today on my commuter train for the first time since May 11.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Click this

If you're like me, you get occasional mass emails from friends and acquaintances asking you to vote for this or click on that.  These messages tend to arrive when you're busy at work, yet they come from people you like and would be happy to help in some small way.  So you take a moment to do what they want, or maybe you do it later that day, or maybe you intend to at the time but then forget to.

With apologies for all the times I've fallen into the final category, today I will do more than I usually do by encouraging my literally tens of readers to join me in a proud Chicago tradition:  stuffing (electronic) ballot boxes so my friends can win.

Our leading alt-weekly, the Chicago Reader, is currently running its annual "Best of Chicago" poll.  Click here to vote for Josh Alton as best standup comedian.  He's  a funny comic, a menacing softball slugger, and a hell of a good guy, well worth your vote even in a ridiculous popularity contest such as this.  (There's no limit on how many times a person can vote, and a well-connected Facebook campaign can presumably win the day regardless of merit; still, being voted Best in Chicago by popular acclaim in a respected newspaper sounds pretty good, and if it helps Josh book some gigs, let's do it.)

Likewise, please support FOBB&Bs The Hot Karl at the above link by voting for them as best sketch/improv group and best late-night theater experience.  There are many other deserving groups in these categories, some also friends of mine, but the Karl specifically asked for my support so they are getting it.

Finally, I am a past donor to an animal shelter called Tree House Humane Society, which is trying to win up to $10,000 in grant money.  Please click here, type "Tree House Humane Society" into the search box,  and vote for the first 60640 location, not the Bucktown location.  You can do this once a day through mid-August and kittens everywhere think you should.