hop to it

I admit it – I was the token heterosexual viewer of the Tony Awards on Sunday night, although I was busy with other things and wasn’t watching most of it all that closely. I did like the bit with Carole King and the woman who’s currently playing her on Broadway. But I was about five minutes late switching over to the show – which killed me, because I wanted to see how this “Duck Dynasty” cast member Hugh Jackman responded to Neil Patrick Harris’ hoop-jumping, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink opening number last year.

I went back and caught the opening later, online. Here it is.

This performance was a tribute to something. I knew what it was, even before Hugh hopped past that video screen on which it was playing. There was a scene from a classic MGM musical in which Bobby Van did a similar hopping number:

In this case, I had never seen the actual movie and could not have told you the name: “Small Town Girl.” I had seen this number as part of “That’s Entertainment,” a feature-length compilation and tribute to MGM’s Freed Unit musicals that ran in theaters, and then on TV, in the 1970s. (The YouTube clip above is taken from “That’s Entertainment,” which is why you hear a second or two of Gene Kelly’s voice introducing the routine.)

I remember Bobby Van and his wife, Elaine Joyce, mostly from game shows. (I was obsessed with game shows as a child, growing up as I did in the heyday of the daytime network game show.) They were each panelists on “Match Game” at one point or another, and they appeared as a couple on “Tattletales,” which was Goodson-Todman’s celebrity version of “The Newlywed Game.” Bobby Van even hosted a few short-lived game shows himself. It wasn’t until I saw “That’s Entertainment” that I realized his celebrity came from any place other than game shows.

Right about the time I tuned over last night, before I had seen the actual number, I laughed out loud at Tori Taff’s response to it on Facebook:

  • You know you’re of a certain age when u watch Hugh Jackman BOUNCE into#Tonys2014 & all u can think is “Yeah, knee replacements for sure.”

It seems like a strange choice to have the opening number of the Tonys be a tribute to a scene from a movie, but the song to which Bobby Van was hopping was called “Take Me To Broadway,” so maybe it wasn’t such a strange choice after all.

crossbones

It’s a bad sign that I hadn’t even heard of “Crossbones” until after the first episode had aired, and that NBC is showing it on Friday nights during the summer.

But I have to say, I am thoroughly enjoying it. Maybe since I know going in that it’s not long for this world, I won’t be too disappointed when the inevitable happens.

“Crossbones” is a pirate drama with John Malkovich as Edward “Blackbeard” Teatch. Malkovich is the star, but Richard Coyle as resourceful, well-educated British agent Tom Lowe is the central character. Lowe has orders to kill Blackbeard, but finds himself Blackbeard’s prisoner, in effect, on a secret Caribbean island.

The show is more entertainment than history – an anachronistic steampunk submarine has been hinted at – but there is one interesting historical connection. Earlier today, before watching the first episode, I noticed that the Amazon Kindle deal of the day was “Longitude” by Dava Sobel. This is a non-fiction book about the creation of the first accurate clock that could be taken to sea, enabling mariners for the first time to be able to calculate their longitude, and thus their exact position. The book sounded interesting.

Then, when I watched the first episode, that very clock turned out to be a critical plot point on the show – Blackbeard wants it, and Lowe must try to keep it out of his hands. (I ended up going back and buying the Kindle book out of curiosity, while it was still on sale for $1.99.0)

Malkovich and Coyle are both fantastic, as are several of the other players. (I’m sometimes annoyed by the Coyle character’s dim-bulb Jimmy Olsen sidekick, but that’s a quibble.)

I can’t understand why NBC isn’t giving this more of a chance; I think it’s wonderful escapist entertainment.

Here, if you’re interested, are the first two episodes:

meeting of minds

I don’t know what made me think of “Meeting of Minds” the other day. I went looking online tonight and found just two short clips on YouTube. The show doesn’t seem to be available on DVD, nor do I believe it’s been rebroadcast since its original run, which is a shame.

“Meeting of Minds,” which ran on PBS in the late 1970s, was the brainchild of Steve Allen. Allen first had the idea in the 50s, and wanted to include it as a segment on a weekly prime time show he was doing at the time. But the sponsor wouldn’t approve. Later, a Canadian show with a similar premise appeared, and Allen even appeared on that show as George Gershwin, a year or two before his own version premiered on PBS. But although the Canadian version predated Allen’s, Allen actually had the idea first.

The premise was a historical talk show, with Allen as host and the guests being actors in character as historical figures from various eras in time. (Allen’s wife Jayne Meadows was a frequent guest, playing a number of different historical figures on different episodes.) I especially remember one episode with Voltaire and Martin Luther as two of the guests. Allen would bring out the first guest, interview them a little while, and then that guest would stay on stage as the next guest came out. There were usually four guests, and so once you had all four of them on stage they’d start to interact with each other. As you can imagine, Voltaire and Martin Luther were not quite in agreement.

The dialogue was based on the actual writings or reported comments of each real person, but they were artfully edited and woven together by Allen (who wrote every episode) into what sounded like natural conversation.

I see on Wikipedia that there was one episode which made a minor deviation from the format. William Shakespeare was paired, not with other historical figures, but with characters from his works. (Jayne Meadows played the “dark lady” from his sonnets.)

I don’t think I saw anywhere near all of the episodes, but I still remember the series vividly, all these years later. I really wish someone would make it available. Wikipedia says that the scripts are available for educational performance or study, and Allen waived any rights to performance royalties because of their educational nature.

Here’s one of the YouTube clips I found:

Who’s next at the ‘late show’?

I have been a fan of David Letterman ever since “Late Night with David Letterman” started on the air in 1982. For years, my shtick at United Methodist singles retreats and Mountain T.O.P. camp events was to do a “Top Ten” list.

I still remember a night back in 1984 when I was feeling hurt and alone because of a romantic disappointment. I was curled up in my bunk in the dorms at ORU. “Late Night” came on. Then, as now, there’s a different humorous introduction of David each night. That night’s introduction, delivered by “Late Night” announcer Bill Wendell: “… and now, a man who’s sick and tired of your whining…. Daaaavid Letterman!”

I nearly fell out of the bunk laughing.

Well, now Dave has announced that he’ll be retiring at some time in 2015. It’s the end of an era – and the beginning of a guessing game about who or what will take that time slot.

I have no knowledge whatsoever, just layman’s guesses from watching the late night scene over the past three decades. Let’s look at some of the names that have come up tonight:

Craig Ferguson: Supposedly, Craig’s contract includes a clause giving him the right to succeed Letterman, but CBS could almost certainly pay him off if they went another direction. I could be wrong – my brother in North Carolina and I are in disagreement on the issue – but I’m not really convinced he really wants the pressure and network supervision that a move to the earlier, more high-profile time slot would entail. He would have to rein in certain aspects of his comedy. He saw what happened to Conan O’Brien when Conan tried to move his show intact to the earlier hour and resisted network interference.

It’s true that Dave himself struggled to translate his comedy from the late time slot to the earlier time slot when he moved from NBC to CBS. I was faithful to him all the way through, but there was a period when he struggled creatively. He ultimately emerged with a quite different kind of show than “Late Night” had been, but there were definitely growing pains – and in the current, much-more-competitive environment, the network suits don’t have as much patience for growing pains.

I think Craig will get some sort of raise out of this, but ultimately CBS will go another direction. After all, Craig was losing consistently to Jimmy Fallon when they were both on in the late time slot, and the network has to be concerned he would lose to Jimmy in the earlier time slot.

Stephen Colbert: An immensely-talented man who could probably break new ground in the time slot. But the question is, would he bring along “Stephen Colbert,” the character he plays so brilliantly in his current venue? Would “Stephen Colbert” translate well to an hour-long talk show format? And if not, would people be confused to see Stephen Colbert instead of “Stephen Colbert”? Then again, maybe Colbert is capable of blowing up the format entirely and creating something new that would suit him and/or his alter ego.

Jon Stewart: He’s denied any interest in such jobs in the past, and rightfully so. He has the perfect format and forum for his talents. Sure, there’s a potential to earn more money on a broadcast network, but Jon’s smart enough to know that money isn’t everything.

Tina Fey / Amy Poehler: While either might be momentarily intrigued by the idea of breaking new ground, I don’t think either is looking for the nightly grind of a talk show, especially Fey, who is now branching out as a writer and producer.

Aisha Tyler: I’ve enjoyed her since “Talk Soup” and think she’d be great. I’m shocked at some of the online vitriol directed at her by people who still want Drew Carey to host “Whose Line Is it Anyway?” But you can find online vitriol directed at just about anyone if you look hard enough. I don’t know if the network suits are willing to bet the farm on her (and lose her from “The Talk”), but I think she’d be a smart choice.

Chelsea Handler: Coincidentally (at least, I think it’s a coincidence), she just announced she’s leaving her E! network show. She’s undoubtedly talented and funny. She would probably have to tone down certain aspects of her bad-girl image for this kind of network gig – as Conan learned during his brief tenure on “The Tonight Show,” the network must not only worry about ratings but about individual affiliate stations, some of them located in parts of the country where Chelsea’s brand of humor may not play as well. I have no doubt that she could do that and still be funny – but would she want to?

Jay Leno: I don’t think this is going to happen. I just don’t. Jay could still get good ratings for a few years, but if the network is going to build up a new show from scratch, they’re going to want a long-term investment — someone younger, and someone with more of an eye towards social media and the younger demographic.

Louis C.K. – a former writer for the Letterman show. I’m not sure he’d do it, because he’s gotten used to a high degree of creative control with his FX show and his self-distributed standup specials that I don’t think CBS would give him in this case.

Format change – The ratings for all the late night talk shows have been declining in recent years, because the sought-after younger demographic isn’t locked into the format and would just as happily watch Adult Swim. ABC and NBC have tried to buck the trend with younger hosts, but maybe CBS will decide to go some complete other direction – a reality show or a game show or some different comedy format or the night-time equivalent to “Today” or “Good Morning America.” I don’t necessarily think this is likely, but I do think it’s possible.

I am guessing that if CBS does stay with a talk show, it will be based in Los Angeles rather than the Ed Sullivan Theater. Moving to L.A. would help restore the balance that was upset when “Tonight” moved east. Currently, Fallon, Seth Meyers and Dave are all in the loop for movie stars on the New York leg of their publicity tours. Dave’s successor will, I think, go to the West Coast.

Some have speculated that CBS has been preparing for this moment and may already have someone waiting in the wings, ready to be announced after a respectful interval. In any case, it should be an interesting few months. Bill Carter, the New York Times writer who has been the unofficial historian of late night, should be busy.

Seth and pete

I was excited about the premiere of “Late Night with Seth Meyers” last night, of course, but I was also excited about the return of “The Pete Holmes Show,” which had been on hiatus for a couple of months but which TBS happily picked up for a new season. It’s times like these I’m happy for the DVR — I don’t need to stay up for Seth every night, as I did last night.

I watched Seth’s monologue and the comedy bit about Venn diagrams last night, then today I watched the Amy Poehler interview. I didn’t watch the Joe Biden interview – I’ve come to agree with pop culture blogger Mark Evanier about political figures on the entertainment-oriented late night network talk shows. Republican or Democrat, they come on, field a few softball questions, and rack up some unearned good will by appearing to be a good sport. Again agreeing with Evanier, I don’t think the answer is for the late night hosts to ask tougher questions – for the most part they aren’t qualified to be journalists. I don’t think office-holders need to be making the rounds of the entertainment shows to begin with.

Anyway, I enjoyed what I saw of Seth’s show.

I had been watching Fallon last night duirng Pete Holmes’ season premiere, so that, too, had to wait until today. (I watched it this morning while getting ready for work, as was my habit during his last run of episodes.) Holmes is a mystery – like another late-night comic, Craig Ferguson, he can careen from thoughtful intelligence to silly, sophomoric (but never mean-spirited) vulgarity in a heartbeat. Holmes comes from a religious background, and while he appears to have rejected the traditional Christianity I still hold dear, he’s still fascinated by spirituality and spiritual issues, much more so than any current comedian with whom I’m familiar. He had controversial author and former pastor Rob Bell on his podcast for a serious interview, then later featured him on the TV show in a comedy bit about surfing.

I think he fired just about all of the X-Men during his first run of episodes, but I hope he finds some use for his sharp-tongued Professor X during the new season. Maybe he could fire the other Marvel superheroes too.

Like sands through the hourglass

It just occurred to me that the end of the Jay Leno “Tonight Show” a week or two ago might have been the end of an era — I wasn’t sure if it was the last production in the Burbank Studios, formerly owned by NBC. NBC sold the studio in 2008 and gradually moved most of its production to Universal Studios (which is now, of course, part of the same company as NBC). During Conan O’Brien’s short tenure as host of “The Tonight Show,” he broadcast from a studio on the Universal lot. I read just now that Conan’s old studio is now the home of “Chelsea Lately.”

Jay Leno, however, was comfortable in the Burbank facility and stayed there throughout both of his runs at “The Tonight Show” and the short-lived “Jay Leno Show.”

It turns out Jay wasn’t the last NBC star to leave the ship; Wikipedia says that “Access Hollywood” and “Days of Our Lives” are still being shot at the Burbank facility.

I got to tour the studios in the year 2000 when visiting my brother and sister-in-law in California. (I may have told this story before.) Our tour guide told us the story about Jay Leno and the studios.

When Jay first took over “The Tonight Show” in the early 1990s, he went into the same large stage where Johnny Carson had been presiding since moving the show from New York to California. Johnny, who got his start in radio, was used to not being able to see his audience, and he was far enough away from the bleachers, with bright TV lights shining in his eyes, that he didn’t see them when doing his monologue. Jay, who got his start in comedy clubs with the audience at his feet, was never comfortable with that arrangement. During a week of “Tonight Shows” on the road in New York, he found himself in a much smaller studio and noticed a change in his energy level. Upon returning to California, he asked to move onto one of the smaller stages in the Burbank complex, and a special platform was built so that during his monologue, he would be much, much closer to the audience than he had been. He could even shake hands with them as he took his mark. Jay became more relaxed in his new surroundings and eventually started beating David Letterman in the ratings.

We did not get to see the “Tonight Show” studio that day – they were doing sound check or something at the time of our tour. But at the time, they took you into the parking lot to see Jay’s parking space, and which of his many vehicles he’d driven to work that day. We went out, and gawked, and as we turned around to go back inside there was a man standing on the loading dock from which we’d emerged, smoking a cigarette.

It was – no kidding – Maury Povich, who was taping the first few episodes of his revival of “Twenty-One” that day. (Someone in the gift shop had tried to recruit us for the audience, but we already had tickets for a sitcom over on the Warner Brothers lot that evening.) Maury saw the tour group looking at him, tossed his cigarette and ducked back into the building.

There were murals outside some of the stages of famous shows that had been shot on those stages, and the one of “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” made me think of Gary Owens, hand cupped to his ear, announcing that the program originated from “beautiful downtown Burbank.” (This was sarcasm; Burbank is neither particularly beautiful nor does it have a noticeable downtown.)

Steve Allen did his version of “The Tonight Show” from Rockefeller Center in New York, where Jimmy Fallon has just taken over. But this is from some other prime time show or special that Steverino shot in Burbank, and I like the way it makes use of the corridors, which actually still looked a lot like this in 2000:

Anyway, I don’t know if the current owners of the Burbank Studios give tours, but if they do, and if you’re in Southern California, you need to stop by. It’s a pop culture historic site if ever there was one.

Jimmy and the muppets

Here was how “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” ended its run Friday night:

In case you don’t know, there’s a connection between Jimmy and the Muppets, one I read about a couple of years ago and which Jimmy explained briefly Friday night. Many years ago, the Muppets were set to appear on the “Tonight Show” with Jack Paar. They had to be at 30 Rock quite early, for rehearsals or some such, and ended up with some time to kill. Jim Henson, Frank Oz and some others at one point ended up killing time by painting Muppet-like faces on some exposed pipes that were part of the building’s heating system. No one thought anything of it; they were just killing time.

The painted characters remained there for decades. When “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” was on, and Jimmy Fallon was a cast member on “Saturday Night Live,” the pipes were in a closet in the dressing room used by Max Weinberg, then Conan’s bandleader. Jimmy saw them and was amazed, and he would bring friends and family to see them, an annoyance about which Weinberg was apparently good-natured.

When Jimmy took over “Late Night,” he wanted to see that the characters were preserved, and he got NBC to do some remodeling. Some walls were moved so that the pipes were no longer in anyone’s dressing room, and in fact they could be shown to the public as part of the 30 Rock tour. When Frank Oz appeared on the show, and Jimmy showed him the characters, he was moved to tears by the fact that they were still there after all these years.

I just think that’s a neat story.

Jimmy’s “Tonight Show” will be done in that same area of 30 Rock, in the same studio Jimmy used for most of his “Late Night” run. “Late Night” moved to a smaller studio a few months ago so that the larger one could be renovated and expanded for “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” So the Muppets will continue to be Jimmy’s neighbors for a while to come.

the folksmen

The current movie “Inside Llewyn Davis” is set during the folk music boom of the early 1960s; as I understand it, it’s a drama, although no doubt suffused with that special quirkiness that only the Coen brothers can supply.

But the publicity surrounding “Inside Llewyn Davis,” as well as the return of the Jane Lynch-hosted “Hollywood Game Night,” has me thinking about one of my favorite comedies, the great Christopher Guest mockumentary “A Mighty Wind.”

“A Mighty Wind” is set in the modern day but references the folk era. A manager of numerous folk-era acts passes away, and the family decides to stage a tribute concert for public television, bringing together three of the late manager’s most-famous acts. Two of those three groups haven’t performed together in many years.

“The Folksmen” (Guest himself, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean) are in the mold of the Kingston Trio or the Chad Mitchell Trio. You may notice that The Folksmen are played by the same three actors from “This Is Spinal Tap,” which – while directed by Rob Reiner – was the template from which Guest fashioned his own mockumentaries. Guest, Shearer and McKean had created the characters before the movie, and in fact the Folksmen were the opening act for one of those real-life Spinal Tap concert tours. They were sometimes booed by audience members who didn’t realize that they were actually the members of Spinal Tap in different costumes.

“The New Main Street Singers,” a nine-member group including characters played by Lynch, Paul Dooley, John Michael Higgins and Parker Posey, are a parody of the New Christy Minstrels and other aggressively-upbeat ensembles. (One of the Folksmen derisively refers to them as “a toothpaste commercial.”) Unlike the other two acts, the New Main Street Singers have been performing through the decades, albeit with a constantly-changing lineup. (Dooley’s character is the only original member left, and he’s portrayed as being somewhat disengaged.) Lynch and Higgins are hysterical as the husband and wife now leading the group, who have their own somewhat unconventional metaphysical views.

“Mitch and Mickey” – played by SCTV alumni Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy – were a married couple during their folk-era heyday, but had an acrimonious divorce which landed Mitch in a mental hospital, from which he’s emerged as a bit of a burnout. Mickey is now happily married and out of show business. Their signature tune from back in the day included a kiss between the two of them at a critical moment, and no one is sure how they’re going to handle that moment in their reunion performance, or even if they’ll be able to make it that far given the bad blood between them. Levy was Guest’s collaborator in creating characters and situations for all of his mockumentaries, and he is nothing short of brilliant as a performer in this one.

The mockumentary moves back and forth among the three groups as they prepare for the big night, and various other characters. Fred Willard is hysterical as a smarmy TV star-turned-publicist who is trying to promote the concert.

Bob Balaban plays the concert’s producer, the nervous-nelly son of the deceased manager, and he’s very funny as well.

Everything builds to the climactic concert, during which one of the key players suddenly disappears. It’s very funny stuff, and the music (written by the cast!) is great, functioning as both parody of, and tribute to, the folk era. We used to listen to my parents’ Chad Mitchell Trio album every Saturday when I was growing up, and I have my own copy on CD.

A wonderful movie, definitely worth checking out.

A big finish

I doubt many of you watched “Strike Me Pink,” the 1936 Eddie Cantor comedy that just ended on Turner Classic Movies. I didn’t really either – I was busy with other stuff after getting home from Relay meeting. But if you did watch, you saw a character named Parkyakarkus. I’ve blogged about him before, but it seems like a good opportunity to repeat myself, something to which I’m seldom averse.

Parkyakarkus, a sort of malaprop-spouting Greek stereotype, was the creation of a character actor named Harry Einstein. He created the character on Eddie Cantor’s radio show, and it became so popular that Einstein (who sometimes used the stage name Harry Parke) was eventually billed as just Parkyakarkus, the same way that Paul Reubens is sometimes billed as just Pee-Wee Herman, with no mention of his real name anywhere.

Parkyakarkus is not well-remembered today, except for two trivia facts.

Trivia fact #1: Parkyakarkus, in character, was on the dais for a Friar’s Club roast of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in 1958. He had just finished his routine, which was very well-received, prompting emcee Art Linkletter to wonder aloud why Parkyakarkus wasn’t currently employed on a TV or radio program. Parkyakarkus returned to his seat, sat down, and immediately slumped into the lap of Milton Berle, seated next to him. Berle asked if there was a doctor in the house, and the audience – assuming this was just some sort of bit, a crazy capper to Parkyakarkus’ routine – erupted in laughter yet again.

Berle wasn’t kidding. Harry Einstein had just suffered a fatal heart attack. While he was moved backstage, where doctors would work in vain to save his life, Linkletter called on Tony Martin to go ahead and sing a song he’d planned to perform later in the evening.

The song was “There’s No Tomorrow.” There was no tomorrow for Harry Einstein, who was pronounced dead a few hours later.

Trivia fact #2: Harry Einstein had two Two of Harry Einstein’s sons, Albert and Bob, both of whom followed him into show business. Albert Einstein wasn’t about to go into show business with the same name as the famous physicist, so he became actor and filmmaker Albert Brooks. Bob Einstein became a comedy writer, working on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and appearing on that show as Officer Judy.

It was in the 1970s, however, that Bob Einstein would discover his signature character – and, like his father, he’s usually billed by his character name, not by his professional name. Bob Einstein is familiar to people of my generation as hapless-but-arrogant stuntman “Super Dave” Osborne.

‘Starring’, not ‘with’

I have noticed something that I’m surprised no TV writers have picked up on.

There were several stories over the weekend about NBC’s first on-air promo for Jimmy Fallon’s version of “The Tonight Show.” It’s a classy, well-done promo, invoking the long history of the “Tonight Show” brand, and I was pleased to see that NBC didn’t just ignore Conan O’Brien’s brief tenure.

It wasn’t until today that I noticed something about the show’s new logo.

The full name of the program for most of the 60s, all of the 70s and 80s, and into the 90s was “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” When Jay Leno took over, it became “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” and I remember some commentary at the time that this was an appropriate change in terminology — no one would ever be the commanding star of late night the way that Johnny was. A few years ago, we had “The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien,” and then went back to “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.” Both of CBS’s late-night entries use “with” as well.

But — at least in that promo and the promotional art — the version of the show which will premiere next month will be “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”

first-promo-for-the-tonight-show-starring-jimmy-fallon-new-era-begins

“Starring.”

I’m not saying it’s really all that big of a deal (and I’m eagerly looking forward to Fallon’s tenure, regardless), I’m just saying I’m surprised nobody’s noticed it.