Saturday, August 28, 2010

Bad Day at the Mamet Court

In April 2003, I saw Eddie Izzard in his Broadway debut, starring in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. He was terrific, and so was the show, but I'm really only bringing it up now because I want to share with you his bio from the Playbill of that show:
EDDIE IZZARD (Bri). West End: Henry IX, The Two Losers, Geoffrey of Kent, The Death of Everything (Brixton drama nomination), Give Me Some Soap Mister, Jack and His Bench (from the German), Let Go of My Head, What! (RSC), Bad Day at the Kangaroo Court, That's My Lung, Good God Give Me Gravy (Trevor) and Sod Off.
Funny, right? I bring it up to contrast it with his bio from the Playbill for David Mamet's Race (which closed last week, but that's okay because I wasn't going to recommend it anyway). That one plays it straight, listing his legitimate stage credits (including his Tony nomination for Joe Egg) and his film roles from Secret Agent to Valkyrie. It mentions the FX TV series The Riches -- although describing it as "hugely successful" is a stretch, and I say that as someone who loved that show (or at least the first season) passionately. But one little thing goes unmentioned, and that is Izzard's career as a highly successful and very influential stand-up comedian. If you had your own special on HBO, wouldn't you mention it in your official bio? I would. If I were responsible for something as terrific as Dress to Kill I'd never stop talking about it. Certainly it would enter the conversation long before My Super Ex-Girlfriend. I can understand his wanting to emphasize his legit-actor credentials, now that they aren't all imaginary, but it does seem like a bio that fails to mention his stand-up career (except with the word "comedian" -- as in "comedian, actor, political activist and endurance athlete" -- in a plug for the film Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story) is giving you an oddly incomplete answer to the question "Who is this Izzard guy?"

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


What do the editors of Commonweal have to say about the controversy over the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque"? I am so glad you asked. Our latest editorial is online now.

P.S. There's lots more on the subject at dotCommonweal, as noted at the Daily Dish: hey, that's me!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The doctor is out

The recent collapse of Dr. Laura Schlessinger's radio show is a fascinating spectacle. I can't bring myself to listen to the audio -- I can hardly read the transcript without looking away in embarrassment. And then there's the self-justifying pity party she's throwing for herself in the media. And then there are the "She had it coming" responses, some of them very perceptive, like this one by Jesse Singal at The New Republic. There are a lot of lessons to be learned here -- and Dr. Laura is wrong about what they are (no, the white-people-are-the-real-victims act has not been vindicated, and no, the "first amendment" is not under assault, as Linda Holmes explains so capably). Here's the lesson I'd like to highlight:

People who give advice professionally, in public, are not really there to help. They are there to entertain.

An advice columnist for a newspaper/magazine/website is supposed to churn out entertaining copy. His/her job is not to serve the individuals who write in with their problems. His/her job is to be pithy and fun to read. (This is one illustration of the larger reality that mainstream journalists work to please their sponsors, not to inform the public; for more on this phenomenon, see Jonathan Schwarz.) I rarely come away from an advice column feeling enlightened, and in fact I'm often frustrated by what seems to me to be a terrible answer. Advice columnists often seem to be missing the point; they'll zero in on a minor detail in the letter and address that in their response, or they'll interpret the situation in a way that seems unwarranted, leaving me wondering whether they cut the relevant details out of the letter or just made them up out of nowhere. But I read them anyway. I'm a sucker for "Dear Prudence" at Slate, and not just because I love that song. (I draw the line at watching the videos, though -- I'm not that desperate for entertainment.) Like many other advice-givers, Emily Yoffe gives answers that tell you more about her than they do about how to fix problems. But she writes well, and she's quick on her feet, which makes the "chat" editions particularly entertaining. And that's really all I want. Which is good, because that is really all she's there for.

The dynamic is more obvious if you've ever picked up a women's general-interest or fashion magazine. They all have advice columns, and in my experience, they are all terrible. Wit is not as easy as it looks. Neither is wisdom. And it's hard to shake the feeling that the letters are fabricated, making the whole thing a pointless waste of time. (Would anyone really write to these magazines with their problems? You've seen the "letters to the editor" they publish, right? If not, this recurring feature at The Awl will give you the idea.)

Some time ago Sarah Bunting started an advice column called The Vine on her blog, at least partly in response to the fact that professional/syndicated advice columnists tend to be awful. She's very good at the actually-giving-pertinent-advice thing, for sure, but it's obvious that her success is not just a matter of skill; it's also a matter of format. She's not tasked with filing 1000 words that include at least three questions and answers. She can reproduce as much of the letter as is necessary to make the problem intelligible, and answer it at as much length as the situation requires. The result is still entertaining, but it's not only entertaining, and the entertainment value does not depend on her making an example out of the letter-writer. I mention it because the contrast is instructive -- look at how that advice column works to understand how most advice columns do not work.

The only popularly distributed advice columns that are actually service-oriented are the ones that give medical advice or weightlifting advice -- the ones where expertise in a specific field is sought and dispensed. ("Dear Dr. Brazelton, I have chronic eczema between my toes...") Those are also much drier and less entertaining to read, and they're less common, because you can't farm them out to some pseudonymous editorial assistant.

Which brings me to Dr. Laura.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

My new favorite humor magazine

The subhead/kicker/deck on this article in The Economist made me laugh out loud:
Cheerleading in Court
Go Team!
A federal judge rules that leaping sexily about is not a sport

Friday, August 6, 2010

Investigate this for me, would you?

I have written before about my weakness for true-crime television, which I still indulge from time to time. I'm getting to the point, though, where I recognize people on the Investigation Discovery ads that show clips from the programs, and that's never a good feeling. "Oh, I've seen this brutal murder before."

Anyway, last time I wrote about how the host of 48 Hours: Hard Evidence, Maureen Maher, is always narrating from some incipient crime scene (sometimes it's just a green-screen projection, I'm pretty sure) and asked: What's up with that? I still don't know, but every once in a while someone ends up here because they have the same question. So now I would like to bring up something else that's been bothering me -- and is another indicator that I'm spending too much time watching reruns of 48 Hours.

If you're Catholic, you probably know the Marty Haugen song "Shepherd Me, O God." It's a setting of the 23rd Psalm in very wide use in American Catholic parishes (and probably beyond). If you don't know it, it sounds like this. So here's the crazy part: more than once, while watching 48 Hours, I have heard them use this very Marty Haugen tune as spooky background music. And no, it doesn't just sound like "Shepherd Me, O God" (the way this one song the organist at my old parish used to play sounded just like "Frosty the Snowman" for the first few notes) -- it is "Shepherd Me, O God."

So here's my theory: the arrangement was originally used on a churchy episode of 48 Hours, one where the murdered person was a church cantor or something like that. And then they just kept using it, unaware that it would make every Catholic/churchgoing viewer go, "Wait, what?"

I don't know how plausible that is. All I really know is, they're using a tune by Marty Haugen as background music on 48 Hours, and I really hope he's getting paid, but I also wonder: Why would he give them permission to do that? Why would they even ask? Another possibility, I guess, is that the person who writes incidental music for 48 Hours accidentally "wrote" a song he'd heard at church. In which case, whoops, looks like there aren't enough Catholics behind the scenes at 48 Hours.

I also sometimes watch Dateline on ID, but one surefire way to get me to change the channel -- aside from the uncomfortable realization that I've seen this episode, and gawked at this murder, before -- is to air an episode featuring Keith Morrison. Man does that guy drive me up a wall. Which is why I was delighted to learn that Saturday Night Live has aired a number of sketches featuring Bill Hader as Keith Morrison.

Of course, like almost everything on SNL, the sketches are underwritten, and I'm annoyed at the way they degenerate into a gag about a guy who says "Ooooooo" and "Ohhhhhhh" a lot (because he doesn't, really). But they start out strong, and that impression is dead on. Rarely have I enjoyed a SNL sketch built around a cast member's random celebrity impression quite so much.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Very Good Questions

Someone reached my blog today by Googling this:

"Why did the Paralyzed Veterans of America send me a nickel and ask me to give it to the Paralyzed Veterans of America?"

That is a good question! I wish I had an answer, but all I have is other, similar questions, in this old post of mine complaining about Catholic Relief Services mailings. (Stephanie, are you still getting nickels too?)