Winners and Losers, 2016

Well, as John Oliver rightly noted, 2016 was not a good year. And while I’ll do my best to keep updating this space, regular readers (if there is such a thing) can vouch that I’ve been lacking in posts; mostly because it feels like the world is falling apart. (I say this not as a wholly political statement; for instance, Alan Thicke and Florence Henderson and George Michael have passed while I’ve been working on this draft. Update: Carrie Fisher, too.) But with that said, entertainment is often a good way to express discontent with the current political and social climate, and can often serve as a distraction from, well, our impending doom. So enough prologue: I humbly submit the winners and losers of the entertainment world that were on my radar in 2016.

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Please, Stop Calling Me Chief (So Long, Dave)

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[I know there will be a torrent of think pieces about David Letterman and “The Late Show” in the next few weeks. Please indulge me as I write my own. And please feel free to share your own Letterman memories in the comments.]

“At some point, all of a sudden, people in show business that I never knew before would say to me on the show, ‘Oh, it’s such an honor to be here.’ And I would think, What are you talking about? It’s just a goddamn TV show. And then I realized, this is what happens when you get to be older and you’ve been around for a while, people succumb to this artificial reverence. It was always kids that had only been in show business a couple of years. I just thought, Oh. I know. Your grandparents used to watch.” – David Letterman

There are some things in my life that are inherently consistent. I know that the subway is going to have train traffic or a sick passenger at some point during my commute. The Jets are going to play poorly, and then reach a whole new level of ineptitude. And, through May 20th, David Letterman is going to have a late night show.

I have a long, winding history with Dave’s show. I was too young to watch his 12:35 show on NBC, but remember vividly his move to CBS. (I even remember the terrible HBO movie about it.) Without knowing much about the late night landscape, I knew instinctively that I was a “Dave” guy, not a “Jay” guy. Some people loved Conan, some missed Johnny, and, as eroding ratings over the last two decades show, some people just didn’t watch late night. But Letterman has been a constant for me for the better part of 20 years.

In the summer of 1998, I went on a teen tour. Half the tour, we camped out, and half the tour, we stayed in hotels. The nights when we were in a hotel, we had a curfew of 11:00. Our routine was always SportsCenter at 11:00, and (at my insistence), Letterman at 11:35. The first night of the tour, my roommates asked why I would want to watch Dave. I told them to watch one episode with me, and if they didn’t like it, we could turn it off. And then Dave did what is, unquestionably, my favorite bit: Please, Stop Calling Me Chief.

Please, Stop Calling Me Chief has no business being half as funny as it is. It’s a bit that’s probably better for radio that somehow works perfectly on TV. The entire premise revolves around someone (potentially) catching on and realizing Dave is just referring to them as “chief.” That’s it! And yet, it was rare that anyone ever noticed that’s what he was doing. And the longer he went on, the louder the laughter from the audience got. My teen tour friends agreed – we could watch every night.

The genius of all of Letterman’s best bits (Stupid Pet Tricks, Stupid Human Tricks, Will it Float?) is just how inherently simple they are. Look at Will it Float? Dave takes an object, puts it in a tank of water, and sees if it will float. And it’s hilarious!

Dave’s silliness and zany personality make him rife for impression. Norm MacDonald’s “hey, uh, got any gum?” for instance, is pitch perfect.

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But Dave isn’t just funny or weird (weird as in Chris Elliott living under his stairs.) My family and I have an interesting relationship with the show. My brother still loves the “hey, uh, got any gum?” bit; my parents always joked that our dog Trixie should be on Pet Tricks (she could very convincingly say “hello”); and my Bubbie loved Dave. In fact, at my high school graduation, Dave’s announcer, Alan Kalter, was there, and she could hardly contain herself. It’s not specific bits or interviews, or anything particularly funny that we all enjoy about Dave. In fact, I love his acerbic personality, and the contempt he shows for guests he doesn’t like. Dave doesn’t kiss ass. When he told Joaquin Phoenix, “Thanks, Joaquin, wish you could have been here tonight,” it was a funny line, but it also showed that Dave doesn’t suffer fools.

Frequently, people say that late night shows should be comfortable, and make you chuckle a bit before you fall asleep. And there’s definitely truth to that; when you’re winding down after a long day, something light and funny is probably the best choice for viewing. But what I love about Dave is that he could accurately dissect the issues of the day. He’ll have Bill O’Reilly on, and instead of being deferential and respectful, argue and debate with him about Fox News:

I’m an unabashed Jimmy Fallon fan, and there are times when Jimmy Kimmel has good bits (particularly the celebrities reading mean tweets about themselves). Since he’s been on TBS, Conan hasn’t been as funny, but he too can have the occasional funny sketch. But if something serious in the world happened, something that required a host’s gravitas, without question I would turn to Dave. There’s no better example than his first show after 9/11, when he had Dan Rather on as a guest:

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That’s an interview handled as deftly as possible, given all of the circumstances. Dave let the emotion of the moment ring through, but also allowed for information and, occasionally, humor. People always said Dave was the heir apparent to Johnny Carson, but, when needed, he became the second coming of Tom Snyder.

Let me be clear: if there were one person who I think can handle a late night show with cogent analytical skills, it’s Stephen Colbert. I’m excited for what he will do, and for what his show will be. But as I wrote at the beginning of this post, there are some things that are inherently consistent. Dave was always there. And I’ll disagree with what he said in his interview with the New York Times – the guests on his show aren’t displaying artificial reverence. Obviously, I’ve never been a guest on his show (been in the audience twice, though!), but I will say this: the fans aren’t blowing smoke when we say that Letterman and his show are an institution.

People have asked Letterman what he’ll do once the show is done. Podcast? Web series?  Write a book? Tweet out top ten lists every day? But my hope is that he’ll do whatever it is that makes him happy. And that one day, he’ll be walking the streets of Manhattan, and we’ll cross paths. And he’ll look at me, and say, “Hey, chief, you know where the entrance to the subway is?” And I can smile a wry smile and reply, “Please, stop calling me chief.”

Best TV, 2014 Edition

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Well, it’s that time of year. I’m hesitant to do a traditional Top 10 list, if only because there may not be ten shows that I loved, or there may be more, and, as I’ve said before, it’s my blog and I’ll make the rules. So without being beholden to numbers, let’s dive in to the television that I enjoyed the most in 2014. Note: some of these will be individual episodes or moments from a show, and some will be the show’s entire season. I’m sure you’ll figure it out as I go along. Continue reading

RIP, Robin Williams

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As readers of this site can probably guess, some of my favorite childhood memories are being in a dark movie theater, watching something magical take place on screen. It was a common occurrence for a friend’s parents to take a group of us out to the movies to celebrate, say, a friend’s 8th birthday. In this case, the friend was Peter Borden. That’s how I found myself staring at Robin Williams as Peter Banning (nee Peter Pan) in “Hook”.

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It was only later on that I would truly appreciate the brilliance of the pre-Hook Williams: his rise to prominence as Mork from Ork: his stunning performance in Good Morning, Vietnam; and, of course, how he taught the young students how to seize the day in Dead Poets Society:

His dramatic turn astounded me in Awakenings, and then, as many kids my age did, I fell for his comedy full-bore when he voiced the Genie in Aladdin:

Williams followed up Aladdin with a movie that is very important to my family. Every year during the week of Thanksgiving, we would go see a movie, and the movie that started that tradition was Mrs. Doubtfire.

(That “hot flashes” line has been repeated many times at my house)

While Hank Azaria (in my opinion) stole the show, Robin Williams put on a masterclass of comedy in The Birdcage:

Absent one prominent role (which I’ll get to in a moment), Mr. Williams’s detours into dramatic acting was hit-or-miss for me. Jakob the Liar, Patch Adams, What Dreams May Come, One Hour Photo, and Insomnia all seemed to be attempts to justify the Oscar he had won years earlier, but failed to connect with me. Truthfully, much of his later work left me unenthused: outside of his work as Eisenhower in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” and Teddy Roosevelt in the “Night at the Museum” films, I can’t think of a film of his in recent years that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. (Although, maybe if he had continued to play only presidents, that trend wouldn’t have held.)

Still, his career is more than his list of credits. He was a frequent (and funny) guest on the David Letterman show – he was the first guest on the show in 2008, after the writers’ strike, and he also welcomed Dave back in 2000 shortly after Letterman’s quintuple bypass surgery by dressing as one of Dave’s doctors.

You also know you’ve made it when SNL and its alumni have a go-to impression of you, and in Robin Williams’s case, the honor fell to Jimmy Fallon:

Keen-eyed viewers can tell that I have omitted one important role from discussing Mr. Williams: His role as Sean Maguire in “Good Will Hunting.” Not only is this the second-best movie to come out while I was in high school, it’s a movie I’ve seen countless times. It’s also, arguably, Williams’s best-known role, and the role for which he won an Oscar. Remember what I said earlier, about being in a dark theater and watching something magical take place? That, for me, was the entirety of Good Will Hunting, and specifically each and every scene that Williams was in.

Of course, the greatest irony is that the most memorable and iconic scene involves Williams’s character counseling Matt Damon’s Will, telling him repeatedly “It’s not your fault.”

While unconfirmed at this point, media reports state that Mr. Williams has died from an apparent suicide. If true, I only wish that Mr. Williams had someone in his life who could tell him it’s not his fault, who could remind him to seize the moment, who could demonstrate the wish-granting ability of the Genie or the ability to believe in happy thoughts like Peter Pan.

And while I can’t do that for him, I can at least share the number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255. I don’t know all of you who read my blog, and I can’t imagine to know what Mr. Williams (or anyone else) struggled with on a daily basis. But the world deserved to hear more verses from Mr. Williams, to have a chance to see what other magic he had up his sleeve.

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Just Because…”Neil Diamond”

People (like me) love the irreverence of Will Ferell, especially when he’s playing blowhards like Ron Burgundy (or his classic Robert Goulet impression). I wanted to share this quick clip of him as Neil Diamond on Weekend Update. He’s so detached, the story makes so little sense, but I just love how committed Will is to the bit.

“Yeah, Will!” “Yeah, Neil!” I’ll never think of the Brill building the same way. Enjoy!

What I’m Hoping for from Fallon’s New Show

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Earlier today I listed my hopes for 2014, but missed a big one: what I want from the new Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Yes, yes, I’m sure there will be plenty of sketches with Justin Timberlake, and yes, I DEFINITELY need more Higgns,

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but for my money, it’s interviews like these that give me hope:

Look at the blend of accents, impressions and impersonations, and how generally relaxed he is with Queen Latifah. Literally just the way they say Ryan Lochte makes me want to say “Jeah!”

Forget all the bells and whistles and recurring sketches: if he can become a great night-to-night interviewer, the way he is with Queen Latifah above, then I think his show will be must-see TV.