going deep with david rees

The best show you’re not watching started its second season tonight, and has moved from National Geographic Channel to the Esquire channel. If tonight is any indication, they’re running a new episode followed by a rerun of one of the first season episodes – perfect if you’re just discovering the series and catching up. Fortunately, I was in on this gem from the very first episode.

Going Deep with David Rees is devilishly hard to explain. Host David Rees starts by telling you that he’s going to teach you how to do something you already know how to do – make ice, for example, or swat a fly. But then, as he explores the topic, he reveals details and nuances and background that you would never have expected. It ends up being remarkably informative, but it’s presented in such a unique and humorous voice that it’s remarkably entertaining.

Tonight’s episode, “How To Pet A Dog,” addresses Rees’ fear of dogs (which I assume is real and not just something he put on for the show), talks about how dogs were domesticated. Rees talks to the very funny author and comedienne Amy Sedaris about how to pet rabbits to see if any of that knowledge will transfer to dogs. He talks to astronaut Chris Hadfield – the one who made all those great educational videos, as well as a David Bowie cover, while on board the International Space Station – about how Hadfield overcame a fear of heights.

Eventually, he gives you some actual practical tips about approaching and petting a dog with which you’re unfamiliar.

Watch this show.

And now, since I mentioned the Chris Hadfield music video, here’s the Chris Hadfield music video:

MST3K II: Attack of the clones?

Is MST3K coming back? Or is it already here?

This is going to be geeky. You know I love Explaining Things, and this is a topic on which I’m passionate.

One of my all-time favorite TV shows was “Mystery Science Theater 3000” – MST3K to its fans — in which three characters were silhouetted against a really bad movie, which they made from bad to good by seasoning it with a constant stream of wise cracks and pop culture references.

MST3K started as a local show on Minneapolis television, then moved to something called The Comedy Channel, which a year or so later merged with HA! to form Comedy Central.

The show ran for seven seasons on Comedy Channel / Comedy Central, was cancelled and then ran for three more years on the Sci-Fi Channel (now SyFy).

The show was created, and originally hosted, by prop comic Joel Hodgson (whose character on the show was named Joel Robinson). He left midway through the fifth season on cable; the last 2 1/2 seasons on Comedy Central, and the entire run on Sci-Fi, was hosted by Michael Nelson (who used his own name). I like both, but I’ve always liked Mike better. Granted, in some circles this is tantamount to preferring Roger Moore to Sean Connery. (Kids, ask your parents.)

Making fun of movies was the meat and potatoes of the show, but the premise was that mad scientists (played, in various eras of the show, by Trace Beaulieu, Josh Weinstein, Frank Conniff and Mary Jo Pehl) had trapped the host (Joel or Mike) in an orbiting spaceship and was forcing him to watch bad movies as a cruel experiment. Joel/Mike shared the spaceship with wisecracking robots, two of whom – Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo – would join him in the theater when it was time to watch a movie.

After MST3K left the air, two different groups of alumni continued making fun of bad movies through their own self-distributed projects. Neither group used or had access to the MST3K characters or puppets.

Joel and some of the MST3K alumni who had moved to California had a group called Cinematic Titanic, which released DVDs and did live appearances.

Mike and the two riffers who were with him in the theater for the Sci-Fi years – Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett – had a brief run as “The Movie Crew” before forming RiffTrax. RiffTrax started by releasing audio commentary tracks which the purchaser plays in synch with a store-bought DVD or on-demand movie, and that’s still a big part of what they do. That allows them to make fun of big-budget movies which would have been out of MST3K’s reach, since they don’t have to purchase the rights to the movie.

But RiffTrax eventually started releasing its own DVDs as well, allowing them to cover the type of low-budget movies and shorts which were MST3K’s meat and potatoes. And RiffTrax does two or three live shows each year which are simulcast to theaters across the country. They’ve even done nights of programming on the National Geographic channel, making fun of bad nature shows.

Although the two groups were competitors in one sense, they were still collegial friends and former co-workers. A few people from either camp even made guest appearances on the competing product.

Cinematic Titanic ran out of steam a few months ago and announced that it was shutting down, leaving RiffTrax the sole survivor.

Now, however, Joel Hodgson has a Kickstarter campaign to bring back MST3K under the original name and with the original robot puppet characters. But Joel would be involved only as a producer. A new, young host and a new, young mad scientist would be hired, and new puppeteers would be hired to voice Crow and Tom Servo.

Mike Nelson took to Facebook to explain that he wasn’t involved in the new MST3K – and  he’s not interested in it, although he says he wishes them well. He explained that he was a “hired hand” at the old MST3K, while now with RiffTrax he, Corbett and Murphy are running their own show.

Joel has set a $2 million goal for the Kickstarter campaign, which is ambitious – but not unthinkable, given the dedication of some MST3K fans.

I wish Joel all of the best, and there’s room for both MST3K and RiffTrax, but on any given day I’d rather watch something by RiffTrax than a new MST3K hosted and performed by unknown quantities. Mike, Kevin and Bill are the MST3K reboot I want to see. If I give to any Kickstarter campaign in the near future, it will be the one by my Facebook friend Jerry Chamberlain of Daniel Amos and the Swirling Eddies:

A Hedy of her time

It was within the past two weeks that I posted a comment on someone’s Facebook post talking about Hedy Lamarr, who — during her peak as a glamorous movie actress in Hollywood of the 1940s — was also an inventor. She and a friend co-invented a technology called “frequency hopping” which they thought would help protect military radio transmissions from being intercepted during World War II. The military didn’t use it during the war, but it later became an important part of cell phone and WiFi technology.

It’s one of those too-strange-for-fiction stories. If I wrote a novel in which the protagonist was one of the top actresses in Hollywood and also a pioneering inventor, you’d laugh in my face and call it ridiculous. And yet, it actually happened. It’s a great story, and one that could be particularly useful in getting young girls interested in the STEM fields.

Don’t believe me? Go to google.com and check out today’s Google Doodle.

And, with all apologies to Harvey Korman, in this case we really are talking about Hedy Lamarr, not Hedley.

where did we go right?

I turned over to Turner Classic Movies: TCM just now to see the last few minutes of The Mouse That Roared, with Peter Sellers. I loved the the book, by Leonard Wibberley, when I was a teenager, and we did the play when I was a drama student at Cascade.

The movie takes some liberties; the Grand Duchess, one of several characters Sellers plays on screen, is a flighty young woman in the book, but an old dowager in the movie.

It’s a very funny premise. At the time of the book and the movie, the Marshall Plan was still fresh in everyone’s memory. The story (and I’m going by the book version here) is about the tiny — and mythical — European nation of Grand Fenwick, more like a small town than a country. Grand Fenwick has fallen on hard times because an American vintner has copied its signature wine, which is its primary export. The leaders of the country note that the United States is quite generous in rebuilding countries it has beaten in war, and so they come up with an ingenious plan: They will declare war on the United States, surrender immediately, and then reap the benefits.

But the plan goes awry. For one thing, the declaration of war gets lost in the shuffle at the U.S. State Department. For another, the somewhat dimwitted patriot Grand Fenwick sends to lead their invasion force is not privy to the real plan; he thinks he’s supposed to win, even though he and his men are armed only with bows and arrows. The invasion force lands in a seemingly-deserted New York during a disaster drill, and blunders onto the campus of Columbia University, where they take as their prisoner an Einstein-like scientist who has invented a terrible new type of bomb – and who has the prototype in his possession. The U.S. government has no choice but to surrender, an outcome for which Grand Fenwick is stunningly unprepared.

It’s the first of a series of books about Grand Fenwick – I vaguely remember reading one or two others but I think the original was the best.

TCM is showing a series of movies tonight about fictitious ruritanian countries. It started with “The Mouse That Roared.” Right now, there’s “Romanoff and Juliet,” about a tiny nation whose vote on a key issue in the UN General Assembly is being sought by both the U.S. and the USSR. But coming up at 10:30 is one of my all-time favorites: Duck Soup, in which Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo lay waste to the fictitious land of Freedonia.

Spontanean Nation! Nation!

I listen to several different comedy podcasts. Most, but not all, normally use a studio-based format, while others use a live-audience format, recorded at some sort of comedy club.

Sometimes, a studio-based podcast will do a special episode in a live-audience format. They usually present this as if it were a special treat, but I often don’t like the live episodes as much as I do the studio episodes, because the live episode usually has a different and unfamiliar rhythm. (And yet, I have no problem with the podcasts that use a live audience as their regular, week-in week-out format.)

The comedian Paul F. Tompkins is involved with several different podcasts of his own and is also a frequent guest on other podcasts. Tompkins created and plays H.G. Wells on the hilarious Dead Authors Podcast, in which he interviews other deceased authors (as played by various Wikipedia-crammed comics and actors).

But one of Tompkins’ newest efforts is Spontaneanation, a unique podcast with a two-part format. In the first part, Tompkins interviews a podcast guest, usually a wide-ranging conversation which brings up funny stories from the subject’s past and childhood. Then, in the second half, Tompkins and a team of improv comics create a sketch which takes place in a setting which has been suggested by the interview guest. They try to be as funny as possible and also to work in callbacks to funny moments or anecdotes from the interview segment. My description probably isn’t doing the show justice; it needs to be heard to be appreciated.

Anyway, Spontaneanation is normally studio-based but this week has a live episode. In spite of the reservations cited above, I thought this was one of the funniest they’ve ever done. The reason is Tompkins’ guest, Scott Aukerman, who hosts “Comedy Bang! Bang!” both as an audio podcast and an IFC television show. (Aukerman is also one of the proprietors of the Earwolf podcast network, which distributes “Spontaneanation.”) Aukerman is hilarious as an interview guest – subverting the normal interview process with weird diversions and character moments. Tompkins (who must have been absolutely delighted) keeps making remarks about how far the interview has gone off track.

Usually, the guest isn’t part of the improv sketch, but in this case Aukerman stays on for the improv segment, and deservedly so. The result is just hilarious – although not necessarily safe for work or young children. You can listen to it here:


With the play over, I finished up reading Mark Twain: Man in White: The Grand Adventure of His Final Years by Michael Shelden, which I bought on sale for Kindle a while back. I started reading it, then had to set it aside because a library book for which I’d been on the waiting list became available, then came back to it, then set it aside again while I was so busy with the play.

It’s a terrific book. As the title suggests, it is not a comprehensive biography of the great author but a look at the last four years of his life. Many readers and scholars over the years, picking up on a certain bitter edge to his writing following the death of his beloved wife Olivia, have painted a portrait of Twain as a completely embittered man during this period, an impression Shelden seeks to moderate, pointing out some of the joys and successes of this period, a period when he was held in great esteem as a beloved national and international figure.

The title, of course, refers to the white suit. If you close your eyes and imagine Mark Twain, you envision him wearing a white suit. But he didn’t begin wearing one (at least not as a year-round trademark) until the winter of 1906, when he appeared before a copyright hearing at the Library of Congress. He wanted to call attention to himself, and believed arriving out of season in white would do the trick. It did. Twain’s purpose at the hearing was to endorse the idea of extending the term of copyright protection. His two surviving children, Clara and Jean, were unmarried, and he hoped that ongoing royalties from his works would help to support them once he was gone.

The book is, in many ways, not only about Twain himself but about his relationships with Clara, Jean and another important woman in Twain’s circle, his assistant Isabel Lyon. Clara was a vocalist who yearned for a career in which she wouldn’t automatically be introduced as Mark Twain’s daughter but would be recognized on her own merits. Jean was an epileptic at a time when treatment for epilepsy was primitive. For much of the period covered in the book she was cared for in an institution, much to her aggravation and her father’s sadness. She longed for independence.

Lyon, the other major character in the book, is unique. She became Twain’s right hand, and personally supervised the construction of the Connecticut home, Stormfield, which Twain dreamed of sharing with Clara and Jean. But in some ways, their professional relationship was not as well-defined as it should have been, and she presumed a personal connection and a responsibility for protecting Twain which got her into trouble. She interfered with Jean’s treatment out of a selfish desire to keep her from being allowed to join her father at Stormfield; having Clara and Jean too close by would have interfered with what she saw as her role as Twain’s protector. Early on, she was driven by a real, intense affection for the beloved author, but she eventually fell in with Twain’s greedy business manager, Ralph Ashcroft, who had designs on Twain’s money.

I can imagine a prestige HBO movie centering around Lyon and her somewhat sad character arc.

Anyway, despite all of the soap-opera machinations, there were joys and triumphs in Twain’s life during his final years – such as an honorary degree from Oxford, a close friendship with a controversial business tycoon, and the joy of trips to Bermuda, where Twain found both physical and emotional rejuvenation. Twain was both working on his own autobiography (some parts of which were sealed up at Twain’s request and not to be published for many decades after his death) and cooperating with his authorized biographer, Albert Paine. He enjoyed encounters with Rudyard Kipling and Helen Keller, among others.

This is a great book, and Shelden has done a terrific job of research while telling the story in a readable and compelling way. I can highly recommend the book.

Cup o’ stoopid

The day did not begin well — I overslept — but I’m not sure whether to blame myself or Procter & Gamble for this latest bit of foolishness.

I had sneezed a few times and had a little stuffy nose but was out of tissue on my desk. I decided to walk across the street to the convenience store and buy some. My first trip was cut short when I discovered it was raining, and I had to roll up the windows to my car, getting wet in the process. I made a second trip a few minutes later.

I looked, and looked, and looked, for five minutes (it seemed longer) and did not see any facial tissues, Kleenex or otherwise. I finally got in line (it was unusually busy) and asked the clerk if they carried any. He took me directly to these:

car-cup I had looked at this package at least twice, and had no idea what i was looking at. All I noticed was the words “Car Cup,” and since the box wasn’t far from the napkins and paper plates, I just thought it contained paper or plastic cups. I did not notice the tiny Puffs logo on the front or the only-slightly-larger one on the top.

It’s not a bad idea for a product — a tissue dispenser designed to sit in a cupholder — but I think the manufacturer either needs to alter the name or put a photo of the open package on the front to make it a little more noticeable as a package of tissues and not, as I’d assumed, a package of cups.

Even so, I felt pretty stupid.

Book, interrupted

I was in the middle of reading Mark Twain: Man in White: The Grand Adventure of His Final Years by Michael Shelden, which I’d bought on sale for my Kindle. A few weeks earlier, with nothing to read, I’d gotten onto the waiting list for a few books at the library lending site for Kindles, and one of them, Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America’s Gutsiest Troublemakers by Nick Offerman, suddenly became available. So I had to put Mark Twain aside and read the Offerman book while it was available.
It’s an interesting book — not for all tastes, and there were a few things that annoyed me, but I definitely enjoyed it. Nick Offerman is a comic actor best-known for playing the taciturn character Ron Swanson on “Parks and Recreation.” In real life, Offerman — the husband of comic actress Megan Mullally — is an accomplished woodworker. When he goes to visit one of his favorite authors, Wendell Berry, Berry’s granddaughters know him from “Parks & Rec” but Berry’s son knows him from articles he’d written for a fine woodworking magazine.
He’s not exactly like Ron Swanson, but the character drew on certain aspects of Offerman’s personality.
“Gumption” is a series of profiles on people the real-life Offerman admires. The list starts off routinely enough, with founding fathers, Frederick Douglass and Eleanor Roosevelt, among others. But it takes a left turn about the time we get to Tom Laughlin of “Billy Jack” fame, and some of the other honorees range from Carol Burnett to Willie Nelson.
The book is written in a humorous, self-deprecating style (Ron Swanson was never self-deprecating), but underneath the humor, Offerman appears to be deadly serious about some of the qualities he’s trying to highlight. You may not agree with all of them, and some are overstressed, which in some cases may have been intended for comic effect.
There’s an argument about religious proselytizing in the second half of the book that gets driven into the ground to the point of annoyance. Yes, we get it, Nick. You don’t like people telling you what to believe. We also get that many people who identify as Christians don’t seem to have much connection to the actual teachings of Jesus. But aren’t you trying to proselytize people to some (worthwhile) ideas in your own book?
But that’s a quibble. I gave the book a good rating on GoodReads, because I think it’s an enjoyable and provocative read.
I have not read Offerman’s earlier book, Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living. He makes reference to it in “Gumption” as having been more risqué than the second book.
Getting back to the Twain book (and I have gotten back to it) it’s terrific as well. It’s a biography focusing on the later years of Samuel Clemens’ life, which attempts to moderate the common stereotype of Twain as universally bitter and miserable following the death of his beloved wife Olivia. Yes, he was deeply affected by her passing, and Shelden doesn’t dispute this. But he points out some of the triumphs and pleasures of this stage in Twain’s life, when he was one of the most famous and admired Americans, a sort of beloved national mascot.
The title, “Man In White,” is a reference to the trademark white suit in which most of us imagine Mark Twain. But that suit did not become his trademark until age 71, at the beginning of the period covered by the book. Twain wore it as an intentional attention-getter while testifying, in the dead of winter, before a hearing in Washington on copyright issues, and it worked so well he began wearing it frequently. When he traveled to England to receive an honorary doctorate from Oxford, some people wanted to know why he wasn’t wearing the white suit.
I may have more to say on the Twain book once I’ve finished it.

Not the one McCartney was singing about

Jet is a new Internet startup that has been getting a lot of attention — it’s sort of a cross between Amazon and Costco/Sam’s Club. There will eventually be a membership fee, but right now if you go there you can get a free six-month membership. The six months don’t start until you actually place an order.

The pricing is a little strange — most items have a price but also say that your total order will be discounted by such-and-such, so I suppose the real price is the first number minus the second number. But the discounts are fluid — they go up the more you order. Orders of $35 or more (and that $35 is figured before the discount, which is good) ship for free. Grocery and household items tend to have two-day shipping, and they have other items for sale as well.

You get an additional discount for using Visa or MasterCard instead of AmEx or Discover. The company claims it’s selling you everything at cost and will make its money exclusively from the membership fee.

I just ordered some non-perishable groceries — stuff I would have bought anyway, and just barely enough to cover the free shipping — and once you figure in all the discounts, the prices seem good. My order before the discount was more than $35, so it qualified for free shipping, but after the discounts the total order came in at just under $28.

Jet had been in an invitation-only beta test but is now public. When Amazon did its big “Prime Day” promotion a month ago, some commentators speculated that Amazon was worried about Jet in its rear view mirror and wanted to try to get more people locked in as Amazon Prime subscribers before they got the chance to sign up with Jet.

DISCLOSURE: Like many websites, this blog is part of the Amazon affiliates program, which means I sometimes have product links in blog posts and get revenue when someone buys from them (which does not happen very often). As you can tell from the above, I don’t let this arrangement affect my content.

this was my jam

I’ve enjoyed participating in the music sharing service This Is My Jam, and I always thought it would catch on.

The premise was simple – as often as you liked, but at least once a week, you would pick a song as your current “jam.” You could share your jam over the major social networks, or put a widget displaying it on your web page. You could follow people whose tastes in music you admired, and like or comment on their jams. Or you could just go to the web site and browse to see what jams were popular.

Unfortunately, the site never quite caught on – or maybe they never figured out a good way to monetize it — and they sent out an e-mail a week or two ago saying that they would soon suspend the ability to choose jams. The site will continue as an archive of past jams, but I went ahead and deleted my account, for security reasons, since I don’t see much value in the archive.

I can – and sometimes do – use the share function in Spotify to post a social media link when the mood hits me, but I really liked the concept of This Is My Jam and will miss having to pick a song every week.