Thursday, October 25, 2007

Steve Martin Comes On Board

Well, not knowingly. But the gang at newcritics is running this comedy blog-a-thon , Nov. 6 to 11, during an all-comedy posts week, and Steve is kindly coming out with his memoir next month, Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life, which is excerpted in the Oct. 29 New Yorker. Is newcritics a thought leader or what?

Here’s more info about the call for the blog-a-thon posts: “Tell us the purest comedic experience you have ever had.” Post your piece to your own site, but send me the permalink at, between November 6 and 11, (which we picked to coincide with the New York Comedy Festival.) I’ll then post all the links at newcritics, with a little commentary.

In the New Yorker excerpt, Steve Martin talks about his earliest days of performing, circa 1965, which has a nice parallel to blogging:

“Standup comedy felt like an open door. It was possible to assemble a few minutes of material and be onstage that week, as opposed to standing in line in the mysterious world of Hollywood, getting no response, no phone calls returned, and no opportunity to perform.”

Martin got out there and did comedy. We bloggers get out there and write. If we waited for Old Media to read and pass on traditional manuscripts, we wouldn’t be the active writers that we are.

And so I hope many of you will contribute to our comedy blog-a-thon. Talented, funny, enigmatic Blue Girl has created these fabulous visuals to inspire and entertain us. So all you lurkers, step up to the plate.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

My Yearly Willing Suspension of Disbelief

Samuel Taylor Coleridge and I have a certain day in common, which happens to be this day. And so I have a yearly excuse to revisit some of those couplets that generations have embraced in to our living language:

It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
'By thy long beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp'st thou me ?'
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
The Mariner, whose eye is bright,
Whose beard with age is hoar,
Is gone : and now the Wedding-Guest
Turned from the bridegroom's door.

He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn :
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.


In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree :
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw :
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight 'twould win me,

His was a deeply literary and intellectual life that didn’t miss much, from agonizing unrequited love of Sara Hutchinson, fulfilling friendships with Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy, living abroad in Italy and Germany, and an addiction to opium, which fueled some of his dream-like language. He reminds me that we all live in prose--sometimes harsh, sometimes boring--but we can dream and yearn-for in poetry to add dimension to daily life.

Coleridge wrote his epitaph in what would be the last year of his life.

'Stop, Christian Passer-by! - Stop, child of God,
And read with gentle breast. Beneath this sod
A poet lies, or that which once seem'd he. -
O, lift one thought in prayer for S.T.C.;
That he who many a year with toil of breath
Found death in life, may here find life in death!
Mercy for praise - to be forgiven for fame
He ask'd for praise - to be forgiven for fame
He ask'd, and hoped, through Christ.
Do thou the same!'

Carrie Fisher also shares this day, and Postcards from the Edge works for me too.

Well isn't this a nice cosmic gift: "A junior version of the famous Perseid meteor shower is scheduled to reach its maximum before sunrise on Sunday morning, Oct. 21. This meteor display is known as the Orionids because the meteors seem to fan out from a region to the north of Orion's second brightest star, ruddy Betelgeuse."

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Mad Men: TV's Own Box of Chocolates

As we bid goodbye to the gang at Sterling Cooper until sometime next summer, this 1994 New Yorker cartoon by Lee Lorenz popped into my head.

In case we have forgotten, Forrest Gump polarized film critics and audiences. As Entertainment Weekly noted in 2004, "Nearly a decade after it earned gazillions and swept the Oscars, Robert Zemeckis' ode to 20th-century America still represents one of cinema's most clearly drawn lines in the sand. One half of folks see it as an artificial piece of pop melodrama, while everyone else raves that it's sweet as a box of chocolates."

Roger Ebert: “What a magical movie.”
‘Dirty Harry,’ Libertas: “. . . . it should be mandatory for any article about lousy Best Picture winners to include the words Forrest and Gump

Mad Men has unassumingly assumed the small screen mantle of such passion. There is no grey area for this world of saturated colors: you either love it or hate it. And that striation, because it is so extreme, is itself something of a phenomenon.

The general critical reception in July for MM was glowing. Then on a weekly basis Alan Sepinwall and Andrew Johnston's "Mad Men Fridays" at the House brought us beautiful, engrossing encomiums, speaking to every character and plot idea. An outsider could only wonder what amazing piece of art could inspire such response.

On the other side were the skeptics, one of whom was Diane Werts of Newsday: “Very little in this critically adored AMC series feels spontaneously genuine. After I ended up in the minority of negative reviewers at the drama's July debut, I figured I'd check back in down the road to see if I was missing something. But as "Mad Men" unreels its sixth episode tonight at 10 on AMC, I'm still left cold by the plethora of precision on parade.”

There are 7 comments to her piece: 4 say MM is absolutely brilliant, “best show on television,” 3 agree that she is “right on the money.”

It’s not that people don’t disagree about other shows, but there is something special, more passionate about the disagreement over this one.

I think it all goes back to the period-piece fantasy at its roots. We are witnessing women struggling to be taken seriously in the work place while men are exercising their primacy and trying to cope with the forces of change around them. How you relate to those themes will play in to how you relate to the series. And the debate between the “I was there, it was nothing/exactly like this” is an interesting subgroup within the camps.

Beyond that, it is the most cinematic, sustainable prime-time hour on the landscape (since Pushing Daisies can’t last). It ably quotes film, and it sometimes finds a lyrical sensibility that actually serves the storyline. I thought not having commercials in the final episode strengthened everything about it.

Now we have ¾ of a year to think about dandy Don Draper, and what—-dare I say like Scarlett O’Hara, who also realized what she wanted just as it walked out the door—-he’s going to do when he gets up off those stairs.

Friday, October 12, 2007

A Comedy Blog-a-thon: It's a Little Bit Funny

The world situation is relentlessly grim, the national political scene is discouraging, and the Mets go into the history books as one of the all-time greatest collapses of a team during one season.

To offer some relief from this reality, newcritics is hosting a comedy blog-a-thon November 6 to 11 to coincide with the New York Comedy Festival. We are putting out a call for posts that answer this question:

What is the purest comedic moment you have ever experienced?

This blog-a-thon is designed to cut across blog genres: we hope that you film guys will contribute the great movie moments; the lit crit types might regale us with scenes of Evelyn Waugh or Wodehouse that you find brilliant; you tv addicts will kick in the great small screen nuggets, and so on.

We know that to analyze comedy is to kill it, but this is also a personal question--it's your most satisfying moment of experiencing what we collectively call comedy, but which will have a spectrum from the sardonic to slapstick.

Maybe it was at a standup performance, maybe listening to a comedy album, maybe it was at your best friend's wedding. We look forward to hearing about it. And, like Joel McCrae learned at the end of Sullivan's Travels, you never know when a story you share is going to lighten the day for one of your readers.

Send links to as you publish, Nov. 6 to 11.(Yes, that's me. Even though I don't have a sense of humor, I am running this thing. Irony I like.)

Newcritics will also be posting an array of comedy-centric pieces all that week.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Live Blogging Mad Men:
"And you, sir, are no John Galt"

Who is Don Draper, besides being Dick Whitman?

On the one hand he is a self-made man who has ably demonstrated Galt’s creed: “I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

Just ask his half brother, or his poor wife and children.

I was surprised when Ayn Rand was brought into Mad Men via Mr. Cooper. Other than on The Simpsons, she’s not a sixties cultural touchstone that turns up in TV shows the way Kennedy/Nixon, The Apartment, and Maypo might. The fact that this week--in fact I believe it's today--is the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Atlas Shrugged makes it all even more intriguing.

Personally I don’t see Don as a Rand hero at all. For one thing he isn’t good enough at his job. Her heroes are extremely competent to brilliant at what they do, and Don’s creative ideas just aren’t that good. Does anyone remember Bethlehem Steel?

"Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think that you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong." Francisco d'Anconia

What Don is good at is impersonating a life, something Rand would have contempt for. He didn’t earn the Purple Heart, he didn’t marry a soulmate, and he supports the system he works in, even if he is good at manipulating it. He hates Kennedy, maybe because he senses another poseur like himself. As Robert Dallek tells us, Kennedy’s image of youth and health was an illusion: “Films at the Kennedy library . . . . suggest that the variety of ailments Kennedy had struggled with for a long time—spastic colitis, osteoporosis, prostatitis, urethritis, and Addison's disease (a malfunction of the adrenal gland)—may have been the principal contributing factor” for his hands shaking. Very little, we all learned later, was what it seemed in Camelot.

“To me, there's only one form of human depravity--the man without a purpose." Hank Rearden

Draper doesn’t take his responsibilities as husband and father, two honorable roles, as a true purpose. Becoming a partner in an ad agency might be purposeful to him; leaving his family and starting a more sincere life over with Rachel might be a purpose.

At the end of the day, if Don is going to fulfill a TV destiny as a latter-day Rand hero, he must become what he now only pretends to be.

“A is A.” John Galt

Pop over to newcritics tomorrow at 10:00 ET as we watch the all-important penultimate MM episode.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Travels with Cadfael: The Amalfi Coast

“I’m near Salerno—do you want to visit?”

It was a variation on a theme from the last several years. Usually Cadfael said, ”I’ll meet you anywhere in the world.” But this time the destination was predetermined, as though we were Calvinists: the Amalfi Coast.

Cad picked me up at the Naples airport, and we drove the highway to Salerno, then down to the extraordinary coast road back to the actual town of Amalfi. It’s an alpha driver’s highway, where you must hug the ancient hewn, towering granite on the hairpins, as the buses come barreling straight on, all against the startling blue sky and sea.

It felt like we drove forever, looking for the Hotel Luna Convento. Finally we came to its distinct tower that sits on the rock that juts out into the water, seen in many photographs of the area. Built around a convent founded by St. Francis of Assisi in 1222, it was a perfect hotel—-white stucco, gorgeous tiled floors, stunning views of the water.

Cad was staying near Salerno, where he was subbing for a priest in a small town. I don’t do well with jet lag, so I took the first day to relax by the pool. In the morning I walked to the dock in town and took the ferry over to Salerno. It’s one of the all-time most beautiful ferry rides there is, as you pull away from the town and can see life miraculously built into the sides of those sheer rocks.

It was charming to see Cad on the other dock, waiting for me. Usually it’s him coming to get me in our travels, and this was a twist in the ritual. Some of the joy of travel with a partner is ritual—his driving, my navigating, reading from literature at times, just being quiet at times. “No, no, they can’t take that away from me . . . “

We visited La Trinite della Cava, a Benedictine monastery founded in 1025. As usual, our private tour took us behind the scenes, and in this case, into the ground. The monastery is enormous, and they were excavating centuries of levels and rooms below it as part of a joint government archaeological project. It was part creepy, part astonishing to descend into the ancient past—-all that physical work to build and create, seeing traces of all those people gone and forgotten, but for the witness of the current people populating the planet, like us,

That night we went to a dream-like restaurant, high in the mountain above the monastery. It was part of a winery, and the tables were outside, under an arbor covered with grape vines. As is often the case in our travels, we were the only nonItalians in the place. The food was light, simple and deeply savory, the wines full and rich, and while this was vacation mode for me, I marveled again, as centuries of people have before me, at the distinct beauty of Italian life. Our senses, so fully engaged, was a powerful contrast to the dust of the day's visit.

I don't know if our lives will leave any discernible mark to be witnessed by the current people 1,000 years from now, but the idea of witness to lives led took on more meaning when we went to Pompeii the next day.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Pequa Boys Rock; Walgreens Scoops Pushing Daisies

Ankle issues have impeded some of my usually scheduled blogging—-it’s that, or when I had my hair cut last week, I, like Samson, lost some of my writing strength.

It was fun to see my hometown’s two comic sons on screen together tonight on 30 Rock. The episode wasn’t fabulous, but it was good. I love the music of the show, from the charmingly frantic, forties chase scene beats of the opening, to the extended big movie vamp music in scenes.

Having Donaghy meltdown in front of Seinfeld wasn’t that good of a premise, but having Baldwin, who went to Berner High School (“the other high school”), cave to Seinfeld, who went to Massapequa High School, was funny to the hometown crowd.

I would like to see the two in another episode together that gave them more to do, and, since this is fantasy, throw in Jack Rudolph. That would be one fine half hour of television.

I haven’t been keeping up with too many of the new crop of shows, but I watched Pushing Daisies.

I enjoyed it. I like an occasional easy sojourn into the fairy tale sensibility and those gorgeous saturated colors are a real kind of eye candy. The writing was engaging and the narration hypnotically melodious.

But I must say that in terms of television, the Walgreens “A Town Called Perfect” commercials got there first (except for the color palette.) Those are only 30 seconds, so I agree with the blogsphere’s skepticism that PD can be sustained.