Archive for Entertainment

Dec
11

A True Miss America

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Today’s Miss Americas serve their term and then they’re never heard from again. Or so it seems.

There’s no prerequisite, of course, that the winner of arguably the most famous beauty contest of all time needs to stay in the limelight when she hands the crown over to her successor.

But there was a time when Miss America was often the springboard to bigger and better (or, at least, more profitable) things.

Mary Ann Mobley was one of those Miss Americas who stuck around in our consciousness long after she sashayed down the runway.

Mobley, 77, passed away the other day after a battle with breast cancer.

She was the first Mississippian to win the legendary contest, and she parlayed that distinction into a pretty decent stage and film career as an actress.

Like so many other women of her era, Mobley was able to star opposite Elvis Presley on screen, and like her brethren, she out-acted him.

Mobley had a smile that went from ear-to-ear and her dark beauty was a stark contrast to the blond, lighter handsomeness of Gary Collins, an actor and game show host (and fellow Mississippian) who she married in 1967.

Mobley captured the Miss America crown in 1959 and six years later she was a winner again—this time with a New Star of the Year Golden Globe.

But despite all her credits on stage and screen (big and small), it was in charitable causes where Mary Ann Mobley was a true Miss America.

She served on several councils and contributed to many charities and her work was exemplified by the naming of a pediatric wing after her, at a hospital in her hometown of Brandon, Mississippi.

Mobley and Collins formed one of television’s most well-known couples, particularly in the 1980s. For many years they were both in our living rooms in some way, shape or fashion, with Mobley doing turns on shows like “Falcon’s Crest” and Collins chatting up folks on talk shows and helping them win money on game shows.

Mobley was the first woman to be inducted into the University of Mississippi Hall of Fame.

But Mobley’s sweet-as-pie good looks and her Mississippian, southern belle demeanor shouldn’t have fooled you, because she was also a very competent filmmaker.

You heard me.

For years, Mobley documented the “young victims of war and starvation in places like Cambodia, Ethiopia, Somalia and the Sudan,” according to a release from Warner Brothers.

That probably doesn’t sound like the Mary Ann Mobley with whom you’re familiar.

The Chairman of Miss America, Sam Haskell, sang Mobley’s praises after word of her death reached him.

“She challenged me, she loved me, and she made me laugh! I shall miss her!”

Mobley once spoke of her ever active life, when she was knee-deep in acting, fundraisers and volunteer work.

I’m home about two days a month, and on those I have to pack.”

 

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Dec
04

Alco-Haul

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My bar-hopping days are long gone, so maybe I know not of what I type.

So call me naive, but do we need bars to be open until 4 a.m.?

A hurried-through bill by the Michigan State Legislature would allow some bars to stay open until 4 in the morning on weekends.

According to the bill’s sponsors, it’s a matter of competition.

Senator Virgil Smith (D-Detroit), the bill’s sponsor, says the measure is needed so Detroit can compete with other big cities, like New York.

Come again?

We are going after the lush crowd? Tourists will decide their destination based on bars being open further into the wee hours?

Another legislator said that the bill merely gives businesses that serve alcohol the option to stay open later.

“Who are we to tell bars how late they can stay open?” was the quote.

OK.

That seems to be a shocking display of being short-sighted. I mean, we aretalking about alcohol consumption here. There figures to be some degree of consequence to this bill, one would think.

As you would imagine, the law enforcement folks aren’t crazy about this, for multiple reasons. One is that the 4 a.m. thing just happens to coincide with when police staffing is thin. Another is that those stumbling out of bars and taking to the roads will now start to overlap with the people who leave early for work.

Ah, but there is a financial component to the bill. Money talks, as you know. Usually.

The bill lets bars and restaurants that pay a $10,000 annual fee sell alcoholic drinks until 4 a.m. Eighty-five percent of the money would go to local police, 10 percent to the state Liquor Control Commission and 5 percent to the communities where the permit is issued.

But even though the police are the beneficiaries of the extra cash, they are down on the bill.

What does that tell you?

Why stop at 4 a.m., by the way?

Some bars open as early as 7 a.m., which is a whole other blog post. So those establishments could close at at four and re-open three hours later. Seems kind of silly.

The bill passed in the Senate, 22-14. It now moves to the House.

Supporters like Smith say that the extended hours would help put illegal “blind pigs,” which are open past 2 a.m., out of business.

Not so sure about that. Seems to me that blind pig patrons will stay blind pig patrons, for the most part.

Nico Gatzaros, whose family owns Fishbones and the London Chop House, lauds the bill because it will help certain businesses, like taxis.

That reasoning should be filed under the “if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry” category.

In other words, with this bill, we hope the taxi business booms, driving home the soused.

Nothing from Gatzaros about how he proposes to get the drunks to call a taxi to begin with. Gobs of alcohol isn’t exactly a precursor to common sense and wise decisions.

But hey, who is the state to tell bars how late they can serve booze?

It’s not like it’s a public safety issue or anything.

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Nov
20

Cos and Effect

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In 1984, Bill Cosby helped save an entire television network.

Thirty years later, he’s toxic to an entire industry.

It was in ’84 when NBC, lagging far behind brethren CBS and ABC in ratings to the point of being a national joke, brought in Cosby and built a sitcom around him.

Cosby was 46 years old and though he’d been canceled in the past with other television vehicles, his star power on TV was still heavy. Viewers still had “Fat Albert” and Jell-O commercials fresh on their minds.

The sitcom idea was novel. NBC decided to cast Cosby and his TV family as well-to-do African-Americans living in a tony brownstone in upper Manhattan. This was no “Good Times” scenario.

The presentation on TV of blacks living a life that wasn’t in poverty wasn’t new (witness “The Jeffersons”), but Cosby was a doctor and his wife was a lawyer. With all due respect to dry cleaner moguls, this was different. Plus, Cliff and Clair Huxtable had kids—lots of kids. George and “Weesie” Jefferson’s TV lives were pretty much presented sans children, even though they had a son, Lionel—but he wasn’t emphasized.

So here came Bill Cosby to save NBC in the fall of 1984.

It worked.

“The Cosby Show” ran for eight seasons (1984-92) and was a phenomenal hit for NBC. The case could be made that Cosby did, indeed, save the network at a time when it was floundering.

I grew up with Bill Cosby, as did tens of millions of Americans. I am old enough to remember his “Bill Cosby Show” of 1969-71, when he was high school gym teacher Chet Kincaid.

I owned a couple of his comedy albums. I saw him perform live at Pine Knob in 1985. I must have watched his video special, “Bill Cosby: Himself” at least a dozen times. I liked that he was into sports, as well as having played football at Temple University.

I have history with Bill Cosby.

It would have seemed unfathomable to me as I grew up with Cosby’s comedy, to think that one day he would be toxic.

But he is.

As accusations swirl that Cosby drugged women to have sex with them, dating back to the 1960s, no one on TV wants to have anything to do with him.

A potential new sitcom featuring Cosby, to be aired on NBC, has been scrapped.

TV Land has pulled reruns of “The Cosby Show” indefinitely.

Think about that last one for a moment. TV Land doesn’t even want Cosby’s likeness on its airwaves from a show produced 30 years ago.

This is O.J. Simpson-like toxicity.

Precious few in the entertainment business have come to Cosby’s defense. He and his camp have been mostly silent as one woman after the other comes forward with a “Cosby drugged me and sexually assaulted me” story.

In America you are innocent until proven guilty.

That’s in the courtroom. In the court of public opinion, it works the opposite.

Right now it seems that too many women with nothing to gain, really, from fabrication, are coming forward for at least some of this disgusting behavior to not be true.

There often isn’t a “smoking gun” when it comes to sexual assault allegations, particularly when the alleged incidents happened many years and even decades ago. It’s classic “he said/she said” stuff, except that in this case, it’s pretty much all “she said.”

Cosby’s radio silence is ear piercing.

All we’ve gotten from the Cosby people is that they’re not going to dignify these allegations with a reply.

That may be good enough if it was just one woman calling Cosby out. But there seems to be a whole cadre of women allegedly victimized by Cosby. The sheer number of women coming forward makes it no longer acceptable to just roll your eyes and shake your head, if you’re the Cosby camp.

Could there be one crackpot looking for a buck or her 15 minutes? Possibly. But do you really think there is a growing faction of crackpots? Or is it a growing faction of victimized women feeling empowered now that the first domino has been tipped?

The answer is probably the latter.

Personally, I feel victimized as well—though not at all to the extent of the women that Cosby allegedly sexually assaulted.

I’m in that other boat of victims—the fans who, like me, have fond memories of Bill Cosby’s comedy attached to our childhood hips.

I don’t know about you, but I certainly can’t look at Cosby the same way again. How can you?

Now, you can stick to your legal guns and urge everyone to wait until the courts have at this brouhaha before we render judgment.

Fine.

You would, technically, be on the right side of the argument if you took that tack.

But emotions and memories and gut feelings don’t ride technicalities.

I am sure that many of us have tried and convicted Bill Cosby in our minds. That’s our prerogative, frankly. We are all entitled to our opinions.

The challenge now is to put aside our personal disappointment in Cosby, should these allegations prove to be true, and focus our empathy on the women he may have victimized.

If Cosby is proven to have drugged and sexually assaulted even one woman, it’s Olly olly oxen free. All bets are off and his image should be sullied forever.

If Cosby did these despicable things, we’ve all been victimized. We’ve all been made fools of, for decades. We would have fallen in love with a fraud and a sexual predator.

But we still would not have suffered as his alleged victims have, for lo these many years.

Let’s not forget that.

Categories : crime, Entertainment
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Sep
30

Smile! (Or not)

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Allen Funt created television’s Candid Camera. But he was not the star.

If Funt were alive today, he would concur.

Funt, who took the idea of a roving microphone capturing unguarded moments from the days of radio and turned it into a TV phenomenon, also never liked the notion that his show made fools out of unsuspecting people.

Funt preferred to think that Candid Camera was more of a series of case studies on human behavior, rather than a gag-filled half-hour.

Regardless, the star wasn’t Funt, though he hosted the in-studio segments and often appeared during the hidden camera “case studies.”

The stars of Candid Camera were always the people—the folks whose behavior was being chronicled in a very unfiltered and unscripted way.

Therefore, the laughs that resulted were always from the audience’s glee at the reactions of the unwitting, caught by Funt’s hidden camera.

But that was then.

TV Land has trotted out a new version of Candid Camera, hosted by Funt’s son, Peter, and actor Mayim Bialik.

As in Allen Funt’s original version, the hosts in the studio don’t matter. Not that the younger Funt and Bialik do a poor job (they don’t), but they aren’t the stars.

The new version, however, falls flat.

It’s not the fault of Funt and Bialik. It’s the fault of the people. And that’s not even fair, really.

The charm of the original Candid Camera was not only watching normal people in abnormal situations, it was in the reveal—that moment when Funt, et al would finally let the unsuspecting in on the joke.

“You’re on Candid Camera!”

But back in the original show’s days, there weren’t cameras all over the place. There weren’t cell phones and tablets and the like, all equipped with cameras that could be whipped out at a moment’s notice, ready to capture just about anything the possessor wished to capture, newsworthy or not.

Today, people aren’t stunned or shocked by the presence of a camera, even if they didn’t know one was trained on them for a case study.

So the reaction to the reveal in the new version is, well, muted.

And a muted reaction isn’t very entertaining to the TV viewers.

Now, that might not be so bad if the situations the people are placed in made up for the less-than-spectacular reveal reactions.

But they don’t.

Candid Camera debuted in 1948 and there have been a few relaunches along the way. So we’re talking 66 years, essentially, of the show’s existence. That’s a long time and it’s hard to come up with fresh new stuff.


Allen Funt, back when this notion still had the power to amaze


But again, the society in which we live makes it awfully difficult for us to be flabbergasted anymore by what we see going on in front of our eyes.

Whether it’s a soap dispenser at a market that doesn’t stop dispensing or a retail outlet that charges a $10 fee to shop in the store as opposed to online (both used in the new version), does anything really surprise us anymore?

The charm of Candid Camera was rooted in two certainties that existed decades ago that simply don’t anymore—a much more impressionable public and a genuine amazement that a hidden camera could be set up. The people were video virgins, so to speak.

Today’s society is far less impressionable and there are cameraseverywhere anymore. In fact, it seems like we are all on camera more than we aren’t, when you add security cameras and the like into the mix.

I think it would be more of a surprise if the revealing person shouted, “You’re NOT on camera now!”

Still, I give TV Land credit for trying to appeal to those of us who remember when an evening with Allen Funt and company was truly a special event. The situations were comical, the reactions were priceless and the reveals were the cherry on top.

However—and it’s not TV Land’s fault—today’s society is just so damned hard to amaze and impress. And we are certainly not aghast at the notion of a camera lens shooting us through a hole in a wall.

The result is that watching the new Candid Camera is like dusting off an old Jack-in-the-Box and failing to be stunned by the clown popping out—while being wistful of the days when it did.

************************************************************

Editor’s note: The following e-mail arrived from none other than Peter Funt himself, who saw this post, on October 1, 2014:

Funny thing about the “original.” There’s no bigger fan of my Dad’s work than me, and I never suggest that my stuff is as good as his was at his prime. However, I find that our memories have a way of distorting and condensing and selecting from the past. I think what you and some other viewers are, in effect, saying is: When I recall the handful of fabulous reveals that Allen got over decades – perhaps seen in highlights or “best of” packages – they’re better than what Peter gets week in and week out. How true!

It’s hard to compete with a legend. Fortunately that’s not my objective. Good luck with your site.
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Aug
12

Tears of a Class Clown

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“I try to keep my sadness hid
Smiling in the public eye
But in my lonely room cry
the tears of a clown.”

I don’t generally like to start blog posts or columns with quotes or song lyrics. I have often looked at that sort of thing as a cheap, hackneyed stunt.
But the first thing I thought of upon hearing the news of Robin Williams’ death by suicide was the iconic song by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, “Tears of a Clown.”
So I thought it would be appropriate to lead this post with a portion of Smokey’s lyrics, because how can you read them and not think of Williams and the many comedians before him who made their living making us laugh while at the same time battling inner demons?
Williams, 63, apparently hanged himself at his California home, sometime between 10:30 p.m. Sunday night and 10:30 a.m. Monday morning.
His manager said Williams was battling “severe depression” lately.
It is fascinating to me, how many tormented “funny men” have graced the stages of comedy clubs, Broadway houses and television specials practically from the time the first brave soul decided to stand in front of a crowd and crack jokes.
There must be some corollary between the thrill of getting laughs on stage and being shy, lacking of self-esteem and, frankly, sad.
Williams, of course, was more than a comedian. He started out playing an alien on a TV sitcom and turned out to be a whale of a dramatic actor who had a knack for playing lovable, vulnerable characters with a big heart.
He was also likely the most manic guest in TV talk show history.
A Williams appearance on Carson or Leno should have required the viewer to be asked to buckle up and put the tray in the upright position.
It was a six-minute exercise in non-stop tidbits, impersonations and story telling, and Williams never sat still during any of it. In fact, he usually wasn’t sitting at all.
He made me nervous, truth be told, as a talk show guest but the crowd (and the host) always ate up Williams’ shtick.
Williams, again like so many fellow comedians, got lost in substance abuse, which likely didn’t do his depression symptoms any good.
He returned to TV full-time last fall in “The Crazy Ones,” playing a quirky ad agency man who works with his daughter. The series was Williams’ first foray on the small screen as a lead character since his days on “Mork and Mindy” from 1978-82.
But the new series couldn’t come close to shaking Williams out of the deep and irreversible funk of depression that would ultimately prompt him to take his own life.

I suspect that comedians and actors who cause moviegoers and viewers to feel a wide range of emotions are often feeling wide ranges of emotions themselves. Their roller coaster sometimes makes one too many bumps and they fly out of the car.

Williams may have been lonely but he wasn’t alone. He was a family man—a husband and a father three times over. His friends and colleagues described him—especially in the wake of his death—as kind, compassionate and with a huge heart.
So here we are—the man who dedicated himself to lifting the spirits of others, unable to lift his own.
When someone takes their own life, those who don’t know the pain figure that there must have been a viable alternative.
But here’s the punch line—the suicide victim instead thinks that the viable alternative that we espouse is a death sentence of sorts, anyway. So why keep going?
Billy Crystal, longtime friend and co-host of “Comic Relief” with Williams and Whoopi Goldberg for 20 years, had maybe the most appropriate tweet after learning of the news.
“No words.”
Fitting, because Robin Williams didn’t need too many to make us laugh or cry.
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Jul
20

Tall, Dark and Oklahoman

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James Garner was once asked if he’d ever do a nude scene on camera.

“I don’t do horror movies,” he said.

Rim shot.

Garner, who died on Saturday at age 86, was a Hollywood leading man but a humble Oklahoman at heart.

“I got into the business to put a roof over my head,” he once said. “I wasn’t looking for star status. I just wanted to keep working.”

And work he did, especially in the 1960s, when Garner was often teamed with the biggest female names in movies, such as Doris Day (Rock Hudson is more famously connected with Day, but Garner did his fair share with her as well), Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine and Kim Novak.

The film boom for Garner was set up by his work in TV’s Maverick, in which he starred from 1957-60, playing old Western card shark and ladies man Bret Maverick. The show went toe-to-toe on Sunday nights with The Ed Sullivan Show and The Steve Allen Show, more than holding its own.

If you were a casting director and could mail order a leading man, Garner would arrive at your office.

He was tall, dark and handsome, and possessed a self-effacing style bereft of cockiness. His Oklahoma lilt, which he never tried to disguise, added to the down home feel that just about all of his characters had.

Garner, left, with Jack Kelly as Bret and Bart Maverick

Garner, for a brief time, even dabbled in auto racing, an interest that was piqued when he co-starred in 1966′s Grand Prix. Garner thus joined Steve McQueen and Paul Newman as actors/racers.

But mention James Garner, and even today the first thing likely to spill from peoples’ lips is The Rockford Files, NBC’s series that ran from 1974-80. Loosely based on Garner’s Bret Maverick, brought into modern times, the private investigator Jim Rockford character landed Garner an Emmy Award in 1977.

Some old-timers like yours truly will also recall Garner in a popular series of Polaroid TV commercials in the late-1970s, early-1980s, sharing the screen with Mariette Hartley. The chemistry between the two was so genuine that many viewers thought the pair was married in real life, even though the commercials never really suggested that they were playing a wedded couple.

Garner left The Rockford Files in 1980, not because of poor ratings or disenchantment with the show, but because of the physical toll. Garner, who was an athlete in high school (football and basketball), insisted on doing his own stunts, and the result was significant damage to his knees and back.

In his later years, Garner really used his tall Oklahoman stature to his advantage, often playing rugged, wise cowboys and fatherly and grandfatherly figures. His characters would occasionally fall in love as well.

Speaking of falling in love, Garner did that well, too—and fast. He married Lois Clarke in 1956—just two weeks after they met. He remained married to her until his death.

Despite his own stable marriage, Garner once offered that “Marriage is like the Army. Everyone complains. But you’d be surprised at the large number of people who re-enlist.”

And to show how much Bret Maverick resonated in Garner’s hometown of Norman, Oklahoma, the city unveiled a 10-foot tall bronze statue of the actor as Maverick in 2006, with Garner present for the ceremony.

Garner once explained his acting theory, such as it was.

“I’m a Spencer Tracy-type actor. His idea was to be on time, know your words, hit your marks and tell the truth. Most every actor tries to make it something it isn’t [or] looks for the easy way out. I don’t think acting is that difficult if you can put yourself aside and do what the writer wrote.”

Here’s the irony in Garner’s words: he may have been acting and “putting himself aside,” but to watch him on screen was to have the feeling that James Garner was just being James Garner.

He could have done much worse. And so could have we.

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Apr
30

Movies No-Longer-On-Demand

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The corner video store has turned into the city video store.

Time was that you couldn’t walk much more than 500 feet in any direction without running smack into a joint that rented VHS tapes. Then, you couldn’t walk much more than 2,000 feet without running into a place that rented DVDs.

Now, you can drive for most of a Sunday afternoon without seeing more than a couple video stores.

They close all the time these days, but locally there is a closing that might tug on some heart strings.

I used to go out of my way to venture into Thomas Video. So did everyone else, because there was only one Thomas Video—literally and figuratively.

Thomas Video, the favorite of the intense B-movie fan, is closing up shop. To many, this is like the news of a loved one with a terminal disease passing away. You knew it was coming.

Thomas Video has been located in Royal Oak since 2009, but I remember visiting when it was on Main Street, south of 14 Mile Road, in Clawson.

Like I said, I went out of my way, even when I lived in Warren from 1995-2007.

I went out of my way because there was no place like Thomas Video (TV).

It wasn’t so much about renting movies (maybe that was part of why they went out of business) as it was just taking it all in.

The lighting was drab, the place was littered with old, museum-like television sets and the videos were stuffed onto shelves in a sort of haphazard way. But the appeal was great.

Thomas Video was a destination spot because they carried movies and shlock that no other so-called “big box” store would dare touch.

I’m not talking about Godzilla movies from the 1960s. That was child’s play for TV.

You had to be a hard-core movie historian or dweeb to have heard of half the titles that TV stocked.

There were also shelves upon shelves of hard-to-find industry magazines and books. There was also an impressive selection of comic books, almost as a complement to the movies—or maybe to keep with the nerdy theme.

Personally, I only rented a few titles. I mainly went there to browse. Maybe in a way I am partly responsible for the store’s closing.

Even TV’s owners saw the writing on the wall.

“We probably should have done this a long time ago,” co-owner Jim Olenski told the Detroit Free Press. “Business has been really bad over the last few years.”

TV started in 1977, right about when home video started to take off. But Olenski blames video-on-demand, NetFlix and other movie-viewing platforms for chomping into TV’s customer base.


Thomas Video co-owner Jim Olenski in the late-1990s

The sad irony is that while those methods of watching movies have indeed taken down a bunch of video stores, TV prided itself on notbeing one of the bunch.

The appeal of Thomas Video was that you could find titles there that literally no one else offered. Yet that novelty wasn’t enough to keep TV going, apparently.

TV wasn’t just a store for hard-to-find titles. It also functioned as an intimate location for cult celebrities like The Ghoul and actor Bruce Campbell (“Evil Dead”) to hang out and sign autographs.

Olenski put it best, in a self-tribute to him and partner Gary Reichel.

“We wanted to be the last video store standing, and we almost were.”

Olenski and Reichel did better than many others who didn’t have the guts or the vision to stock the titles that Thomas Video offered.

In fact, maybe that’s why they survived for as long as they did.

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Apr
04

Later, Dave

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It’s not easy to be a trailblazer when so many of the trails have already been blazed, but David Letterman somehow managed to blaze one anyway.

You may think that late night television was an already-mined resource by the time Letterman, 66, came along in 1982, hosting “Late Night with David Letterman” on NBC.

It’s true that TV at the witching hour was nothing new in 1982, having been first attempted some 30 years prior and being refined for 20 years by Johnny Carson when NBC gave Letterman a late night slot, following Carson’s “Tonight Show.”

But it turned out there was still plenty that Letterman found to do that not even the iconic Carson managed to discover.

Letterman announced today, somewhat shockingly during the taping of “The Late Show with David Letterman,” that 2015 will be the year of his retirement.

“This (retirement) means Paul (bandleader Shaffer) and I can finally get married,” Letterman said to a crowd that seemed to need the laugh to digest the news. But Letterman was serious—about the retirement part.

The longtime late night host said he had a phone conversation with CBS president Les Moonves not long before tonight’s taping and informed Moonves that 2015 would see the end of Letterman’s run on “The Late Show.”

Letterman was a morning loser when NBC gave him a mulligan—a big time mulligan—and put Letterman where his milieu clearly was, in late night.

Letterman’s morning show, which lasted just a few months in 1980, was a critical success of sorts (two Daytime Emmys) but a ratings disaster.

But he was back less than two years later, after midnight.

Where Letterman was able to forage—and where Carson either chose not to go or simply never thought of going—was in the mostly unexplored forest of pulling life’s non-celebrities into the party.

While Carson would occasionally interview folks like an old lady who collected potato chips that looked like people and animals, Johnny’s genius was in his gregarious chats with the famous and in his sketch comedy bits.

Letterman made 15-minute celebrities out of the every man with bits like “Stupid Pet Tricks” and “Stupid Human Tricks.” He also made Larry “Bud” Melman—real name Calvert DeForest, a little-known actor but his day job was working for a pharmaceutical company—famous with Larry Bud’s strangely humorous appearances, which many times made it seem like the joke was on Melman.

While Carson ventured into the crowd for bits like “Stump the Band,” Letterman took it one step further and blended crowd games with cameos from comedic actor Chris Elliott, with hilarious results.

And while Carson had Doc Severinsen and Tommy Newsome leading the “Tonight Show” band and functioning as occasional kibitzing partners, Letterman and Shaffer formed almost a tag-team comedy duo, chatting during the first 10 minutes of each show like they hadn’t spoken with each other all day.

It’s no coincidence that pretty much every late night show after Letterman’s employed a band with a leader who tried to be Paul Shaffer Light.

Sid Caesar and company started doing “Man on the Street” bits in the 1950s (something Carson never really did), but Letterman again turned it up a notch, beseeching the regular folks to partake in stunts and pull pranks on other unsuspecting folks—their colleagues, so to speak.

There are many other directions that Letterman took late night comedy and talk, but they are too numerous to mention here. Suffice it to say that while the genre had been discovered, Letterman took that block of clay and molded it.

“The time has come,” Letterman said today in announcing his retirement a year hence.

He wasn’t emotional, he wasn’t melancholy. He sounded like a man comfortable in his place and with his timing.

It was as if he was saying, “My job here is done.”

Which, it is.

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Feb
28

Oscar’s Weiners

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The distinctly debonair, razor-thin, legendary British actor was in the middle of his scripted bit of monologue when suddenly the crowd was in an uproar.

It was 1974, in the middle of an American craze that inexplicably had caught on ever-so-briefly, as so many other American crazes seem to do—-inexplicably.

This particular craze was called “streaking,” or running naked through a very public place. The nation’s ballparks and football stadiums, to name just a couple venues, were being overrun by those sans clothing, making their mad dashes.

And now the Academy Awards show was being interrupted by a streaker. He was male, even if just barely.

David Niven, startled by the sudden burst of hoots and howls from the audience, turned and looked to see what the commotion was all about. A streaker was moving behind him, across the stage, flashing the “peace” sign with his fingers.

Straying off script, Niven commented with spot-on—as they say in his country—comedic timing.

With typical British cool among chaos, Niven quipped, “Well, ladies and gentlemen, that was almost bound to happen… But isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?”

Boom.

The Academy Awards—better known as The Oscars—are on this Sunday. Niven’s streaker incident was hardly the first time that the Awards were used to showcase one’s, ahem, views. Nor would it be the last.

Actors have used their acceptance speeches to push political agendas. Marlon Brando sent a supposed Native American (it’s been widely suspected that she was merely another actor, ironically) to refuse to accept his Best Actor Award for “Godfather”, purportedly in protest of the country’s treatment of American Indians.

George C. Scott declined his Best Actor Oscar for “Patton” because he didn’t like the political machinations of the Awards themselves. So he stayed home and watched a hockey game. True story.

Woody Allen made news by deliberately declining to attend the Oscars when “Annie Hall” was up for Best Picture, so he could keep a weekly clarinet-playing date in a New York club.

Those are just a few examples.

Others have put their foot in their mouths accidentally in acceptance of their awards, blurting out curse words or other untoward, awkward things. 

And who can forget Sally Field’s, “You LIKE me! You really LIKE me!”?

Personally, I enjoy watching the Oscars, but mainly to pick them apart. I guess I’m masochistic that way.

I hope to be entertained and laugh along the way, however. With Ellen DeGeneres hosting this year, the odds of that happening are good.

I also look forward to the montage of those in the film industry who we lost since the last Oscars. Invariably there’s someone about who my wife and I will look at each other and say, “(Fill in the blank) DIED? I didn’t know that!”

Even the montage has angered me in the past. The omission of Farrah Fawcett several years ago still rankles me.

Yes, the ceremony is notorious for running long and some of the speeches are boring and still others will make you squirm a little, but there are also some kick-ass ones as well.

Watching the Oscars is probably like sitting in the kitchen and eating ice cream right out of the carton, but it only comes once a year, so view with impunity.

Now…if they could only move it to Saturday night. The damn thing goes past midnight and people have to work the next day, don’t you know!

Oh, and here’s the famous Niven clip.

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Feb
25

Second City’s First Man of Comedy

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There’s a certain delicate symmetry when a person’s birth city and death city are the same.

Harold Ramis has such a line on his biography.

Born: November 21, 1944; Chicago, IL.

Died: February 24, 2014; Chicago, IL.

Ramis, the comedic actor/director who passed away Monday from a rare and painful vascular disease, was as Chicago as wind, deep dish pizza and crooked elections. If you cracked him open you’d have found a Cubs cap and a megaphone.

Ramis was always smirking. He had that twinkle in his eye, as if he knew something you didn’t. When it came to movie making and laugh making, he did.

Ramis was one of the leaders of a band of merry men and women who yukked it up at the original Second City improvisational theater group in Chicago, starting in the late-1960s. He was hardly alone when it came to finding fame later, but his imprint on American filmmaking puts him near the head of the class.

Ramis’s first role on the big screen saw him smirking all the way through 1981′s “Stripes,” the comedy he co-wrote and starred in with Bill Murray, directed by Ivan Reitman. Three years later, Ramis again took to the typewriter—this time with co-star Dan Aykroyd—and wrote “Ghostbusters.”

As the years went on, Ramis found more fortune staying behind the scenes, writing killer dialogue, physical comedy and directing the same.

Ramis’s body of work as a writer and/or director reads like so many film critics’ Top 25 lists of comedy vehicles.

“Caddyshack”; “National Lampoon’s Vacation”; “Groundhog Day”; “Analyze This”; “Analyze That”; “Meatballs”; “Stripes”; “Ghostbusters”; “The Office” (TV); “National Lampoon’s Animal House.”

That’s some serious comedy, right there. Iconic stuff.

And, of course, there was the transformation of Second City’s magic of improv from stage to small screen, when Ramis was a lead writer in the 1970s and ’80s on “SCTV,” produced out of Canada, when Toronto joined Chicago as a major contributor of raw talent that would go on to bigger and better things.

You’ve heard of John Candy, right?

Ramis spun his work off “SCTV” and made his foray into film, and we laughed and laughed.


Harold Ramis: 1944-2014

In the “I am not making this up” department, Ramis once worked in a mental institution in St. Louis for seven months.

“(The experience) prepared me well for when I went out towork with actors,” Ramis once said. “People laugh when I say that, but it was actually very good training. And not just with actors; it was good training for just living in the world. It’s knowing how to deal with people who might be reacting in a way that’s connected to anxiety or grief or fear or rage. As a director, you’re dealing with that constantly with actors.”

Sadly, the man who brought us to tears of laughter and split our sides so often, had a painful and debilitating end as he battled his rare vascular disease.

Vasculitis develops when the body’s immune system turns on its network of veins and arteries. Blood vessels become inflamed, restricting the flow of blood or cutting it off entirely, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Ramis was first diagnosed a few years ago.

Coming from someone who should know, having worn both hats, Harold Ramis once gave his analysis of the roles of writer and director.

“I always claim that the writer has done 90 percent of the director’s work.”

However you choose to slice it, there’s no number crunching needed with this: Harold Ramis made people laugh.

Today, Chicago is a little less windy, the deep dish pizza a little colder. Even the Cubs are worse off.

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