Thursday, March 31, 2011

My Half-Assed, Very Quick 2011 MLB Preview

BTW, I have no idea who the kid pictured is. I did a Google image search for "Yay baseball!" and this is what came up.

Ok gang, Opening Day has come and I’m late delivering my Major League Baseball preview. So let’s get to it, shall we? This is the second time I've done this, click here and here for the 2008 previews and see how awful I was.


American League East:

1. Boston Red Sox: on paper, they’re the best in the division, best in the league and best in the sport. I don’t think that they’re going to win 100 games--the American League East might be the best division in baseball--but I think that they win between 95 and 99 games.

2. New York Yankees: not as bad as you think that they’re going to be. They’re going to hit like hell and on the third, fourth and fifth days they’re going to need to. The back of their bullpen is absolutely stacked (provided that the Mariano Rivera-bot 3000 doesn’t break down) and their infield could be one of the best in baseball history.

3. Tampa Bay Rays: have the exact opposite problem of the Yankees: their bullpen has the potential to be a fire hazard and their starting rotation is loaded. Evan Longoria is probably going to need some help, but this isn’t a bad hitting team either. Plus they got new astroturf at the Trop. Finally I won’t want to treat myself for depression after watching a game from there. Did you ever see their old turf? It looked like shag carpeting from George and Weezie's rumpus room after their weird British neighbor puked pea soup all over it.

4. Toronto Blue Jays: I don’t know what to make of these guys, they could be a third place (or even second place team) or they could completely suck. Former Sox pitching coach John Farrell is up there and he’s a pretty bright dude, so I’d say it’s closer to the former.

5. Baltimore Orioles: despite Buck Showalter’s headline grabbing stunt of a week ago, I don’t think that the Orioles are going to be that bad. In fact, I think that they’re going to be a real interesting team and one that no one in the East should take lightly.

American League Central:

1. Chicago White Sox: in all actuality, any of the next three teams could win the AL Central and I wouldn’t be surprised. However, I think that the White Sox are going to be the ones that climb out of this scrum due in part to their power. That being said, Paul Konerko is going to be the fantasy guy that you’re going to look at in June and say, “Why the fuck did I draft him?”

2. Detroit Tigers: Miguel Cabrera is a beast and along with Victor Martinez should help the Tigs put up a lot of crooked numbers on the scoreboard. And they’re going to need it, as their pitching is mediocre at best.

3. Minnesota Twins: I put them here because I don’t want to watch the Twins in the post season this year, rolling over for the Yankees. Though I have to admit, I love watching Joe Mauer hit.

4. Kansas City Royals: either next year or in two years, they’re going to be the class of the division. They have six prospects in Baseball America’s Top 40. You have to figure that even with KC’s luck, at least two or three of those guys have to pan out, right?

5. Cleveland Indians: I wonder if Clevelanders get angry that so many sports fans pity them? It used to piss me off when I’d read or hear people from other cities patronize Sox fans and say, “Don’t worry, you’ll win too some day.” Fuck off.

American League West:

1. Oakland Athletics: they have a stellar pitching staff and they brought in a bunch of “professional hitters” like Hideki Matsui to improve an anemic offense and that should be enough to win the American League West.

2. Texas Rangers: last year was a year where just about everything fell in line (including the Mariners telling the Yankees to screw off and dealing Cliff Lee to Texas). No matter how good you are, when you experience a season like that, the next year never follows the same script.

3. Los Angeles Angels: I guess we’ll see how brilliant Mike Scioscia really is, won’t we? I will admit this, he was one of the funnier guest stars on that baseball Simpsons from the early 90s. In fact, most of the Major Leaguers were really funny. According to the writers, only Jose Canseco was an asshole. What a shock—at least he didn’t send his twin brother to the taping.

4. Seattle Mariners: last year I was telling everyone that they were going to the World Series. I was really high on the Mariners and they crashed and burned, hard. This year, around July 31 there’s going to be a fire sale in Seattle. You can get yourself a really nice Chone Figgins for cheap. Maybe even a Felix Hernandez (I just hope the M’s dick over the Yankees on this one again).

National League East:

1. Atlanta Braves: a few years ago I bet three of my friends $20 that Tim Hudson would win 20 games with Atlanta (he had just been traded from Oakland). He did not do it, but I think that he will this year. The Braves also have some nice young talent that’s about ready to contribute. Could be a fun year.

2. Philadelphia Phillies: I think that the Phils will make the post season and they’re going to be really awesome with their four starters. I just think that they have a lot of injuries to overcome in the first half of the season that may make a division crown a tough road. According to Jayson Stark, they do have the easiest first half of any team in the majors. So basically, I have no idea.

3. Florida Marlins: they’re in third place every, single year aren’t they? They’re just good enough to take seriously, but not that good to keep your attention. Next year they’re going to have a new stadium and will be known as the Miami Marlins. Also, orange will be one of their primary team colors which has a bunch of people who love uniforms up in arms. Frankly, the fact that I know what angers uniform aficionados this says more about me than it does about them.

4. Washington Nationals: they won’t be this bad for much longer. Bryce Harper is coming soon and Stephen Strasburg is beginning a rehab from Tommy John surgery. Even with all of that, I wonder why Jayson Werth signed with them? Oh yeah, he likes money.

5. New York Mets: this team is such a mess, it’s not even fun to rag on them. Good luck Mets fans, take heart in the fact that at least you’re not Yankee fans. However, if you’re a Jets AND a Mets fan, go crap in the woods.

National League Central:

1. Milwaukee Brewers: if the Brewers don’t win this year, then it’s going to be a long time before anything good happens in Suds City. They got Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, so their rotation should be good enough. They also have Ryan Braun and a pre-walk-year Prince Fielder. If they miss again, cheer up. Milwaukeeans in only a little more than a year, I will come to your city. Woo-ha!

2. Cincinnati Reds: the Reds have young pitching talent. The Reds’ manager is Dusty Baker. Ask a Cubs fan if this ends well. Aside from the young pitching, they do have more than a few guys that can hit bombs. In any event, this is a fun team and I’d love to see them make the post season. I’m just not sure if it will happen.

3. St. Louis Cardinals: I hate Tony LaRusa, but I’ve always liked the Cardinals. They have really cool fans (I’ve been to St. Louis before and they’ve come up here when they played the Sox and they couldn’t have been nicer) and they have a transcendent player in Albert Pujols. With that being said, I would be lying if I said I didn’t chuckle when Adam Wainwright went down for the year. If you’re such a genius, LaRusa, manage around that.

4. Chicago Cubs: I don’t know what to tell you about this team. It seems like a club that’s loaded with crappy, over priced veterans that can’t be moved and they don’t have a lot of good, young guys coming down the pike. I would pencil them in for 78 wins exactly. And I’ll be seeing you next year too, Chicagoans. Yes, I am going to Chicago and Milwaukee with my buddies next year in part two of our “Seeing all the Stadia Tour”. Check out part I right here.

5. Pittsburgh Pirates: they could be the Royals of the National League, though they may have to wait a year or two extra before they get good. The last time the Pirates were over .500, I was starting college. In 1992. That is so depressing on a number of levels—both for me and Pirates fans.

6. Houston Astros: this could be the worst team in the Major Leagues. I watched the Red Sox kick the crap out of them on Wednesday night in the last Spring Training game and there was absolutely nothing there. Just a rotten product. And owner Drayton MacLane may sell the team, so anything decent is going to be sold off for pennies on the dollar come July and August. That should put some fannies in the seats.

National League West:

1. San Francisco Giants: last year’s rookie catcher’s name was Buster Posey. This year’s rookie first baseman’s name is Brandon Belt. Grantland Rice himself couldn't have written better names. I think that the Giants are a hair better than the Rockies this year, but that’s only because I am really biased against the Rockies for some strange reason.

2. Colorado Rockies: they have a good staff, they have decent hitting but like I just said, I don’t like the Rockies. I have no idea why I don’t like them, I think it’s because I don’t like Denver. Which is really strange because I’ve never been there before. Maybe it’s because of my hatred of Robin Williams who starred in “Mork and Mindy” which was set in ... Boulder, CO. Same fucking thing. Nanu, Nanu.

3. Los Angeles Dodgers: these guys are almost as messy as the Mets. The good news for them is that they have the Padres in their division and they still have some pretty good players. Unfortunately, they don’t have as many good players as the Rockies or the Giants. And clean-shaven Don Mattingly is managing them. I'm not sure what makes Mattingly (or anyone) think the he can manage without his mustache.

4. San Diego Padres: yes, I realize that the Pads were about three days away from beating the eventual World Champions and taking the NL West crown last year, but let’s be honest: that was done with smoke and mirrors. They got rid of their best player (you DID stay classy, San Diego!) and Will Venable led the team with 13 home runs. That’s not a lot. At least you San Diegans had the San Diego State University Aztecs hoop team this year, they were really exciting.

5. Arizona Diamondbacks: it's been almost 24 hours and I finally realized that I forgot to add these guys to the preview. That's how bad it is for the Diamondbacks. They do have the All-Star Game this year, so that should be pretty good. Other than that, it's snoozeville in Phoenix.

I almost forgot to do this:

Boston over Chicago
Oakland over New York

Boston over Oakland

Atlanta over Milwaukee
Philadelphia over San Francisco

Philadelphia over Atlanta

World Series
Boston over Philadelphia

Friday, March 25, 2011


A few weeks ago, I reviewed a book called “Scorecasting”. I was contacted by the book publisher’s PR company and was offered the book in exchange for writing a blurb on my Blog. I love reading and I love writing, so I was pumped to do it. I enjoyed the experience so much that when I was contacted to receive another book, I jumped at the chance. The book in question is “Derek Jeter: From the Pages of the New York Times” which is a collected works of the nation's "Newspaper of Record" that follows the Yankee shortstop from before he was drafted through the 2010 season.

Before I get into the epiphany that I realized after reading this collection of stories, I have to say that the book itself, is absolutely gorgeous. The writing, which includes dozens of stories from top writers like Buster Olney, is fantastic. And the photos are breath taking. If you’re not a Jeter or Yankee fan, you should at least consider it for your baseball library just so that you have a time capsule of the sights and words of the late 20th/early 21st Major League Baseball.*

*There are also some really humorous pictures of Jeter as a skinny—almost sickly-looking—minor leaguer. That’s almost worth the price of the book itself.

As a Red Sox and baseball fan I’m conflicted about Derek Jeter. On one hand, I’m a fan of anyone who plays baseball well and despite wearing pinstripes, Jeter definitely fits into that category. It’s really hard to argue any other way, the guy is a first ballot Hall of Famer. On the other hand, “Nomah’s bettah!” Sorry about that, old habits are hard to break, you know.

During the mid to late 1990s, there was a renaissance in shortstops throughout the American League. In Cleveland, there was defensive wizard Omar Vizquel. In Oakland, Miguel Tejada manned the position and led the small-market Athletics to the postseason year after year. In Boston, the aforementioned Nomar Garciaparra started for the Red Sox and was drawing batting comparisons to Joe DiMaggio. While these three guys were plying their trade, up in Seattle Alex Rodriguez looked like he was going to be the best of the bunch—maybe the best ever.

And Derek Jeter wore number two for the New York Yankees and patrolled the Yankee Stadium infield, but didn’t quite find a real tangible niche. He wasn’t the best defensively, that was Vizquel. He didn’t win any MVPs that was Tejada and Rodriguez. And he wasn’t the group’s best all-around hitter. In his prime, that would have been Garciaparra. Yet, Jeter out-lasted all of these players as he’s the only one still playing shortstop for his original team. There were numerous reasons: some players were brittle and prone to injuries, others were helped by artificial means and regressed once more stringent testing began and others shifted positions. The odd thing is that all of them played for at least more than three teams.

But through it all, every season, Derek Jeter, consistently made his way to shortstop in two different Yankee Stadiums. And what’s most surprising is that he’s probably going to be considered the class of that late 20th century shortstop group. That’s pretty amazing considering that while Jeter was an All-star and all-time Yankee, he didn’t have a defined skill that made him stand out from the other shortstops.

Is he a winner? Sure, but there are 24 other guys on the Yankees that enabled him to reach that pinnacle five times. Is he steady and reliable? Sure, but he’s not Cal Ripken and there’s nothing particularly sexy about coming to work every day getting a couple of base hits and making the routine plays. Was he a tabloid sensation? Sure, but it wasn’t in a Tiger Woods sort of way. Jeter was the handsome, unmarried Yankee shortstop who dated starlets left and right, but there never was anything scandalous about the way he lived the night life. For a person whose bedposts had notches from Jessica Alba, Jessica Biel, Mariah Carey, among others, his personal life was remarkably boring.

About the only tangible quality that you could put on Derek Jeter is that he had set of intangibles. He always seemed to get the key hit in the biggest game. As a Red Sox fan, he was the last guy I wanted to see at the plate in a big situation. He always seemed to be at the right place at the right time. Witness his famous play against the Athletics in the 2001 Playoffs where he was way out of position—but in the right place—to pick off a bad cutoff throw and then make a flip to catcher Jorge Posada that cut down Jeremy Giambi at the plate.

After reading this book, it seems to me that none of these things were accidental: he was in the right place because he was prepared. He seemed like the most dangerous hitter in tough spot because he worked hard. He outlasted the other shortstops because he has a drive to be the best.

Even after reading this book, Derek Jeter won’t ever be my favorite player—to quote Jerry Seinfeld, “I root for laundry”—but after reading the accounts of what he’s done and following the trajectory of his career, it’s easy to respect the guy and root for him. Any time I got into an argument with a Yankee fan over the merits of Jeter versus any of the other shortstops, the one chestnut that the New York guy would ultimately put out is, “Jeter does it the right way”.

As much as it pains me to say this, they may have been right.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

I am not in London

My Facebook and email accounts have been hacked and I can't get into either until Thursday. You may have received this email from me:

I'm writing this with tears in My eyes My Family and I came down here to (London,England ) for a short vacation,unfortunately we were mugged at the park of the hotel where we stayed all cash,credit card and cell were stolen off us but luckily for us we still have our passports with us.

We've been to the embassy and the Police here but they're not helping issues at all and our flight leaves in less than 3hrs from now but we're having problems settling the hotel bills and the hotel manager won't let us leave until we settle the bills.

Am freaked out at the moment.

A few things:

1. I have not been mugged
2. I am not in London
3. I don't write that poorly

However, I am a bit freaked out at the moment because I'd like to get my email. So they got that part correct.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

20. South Park

The way that I was introduced to “South Park” was such a unique experience that there is no way that I will ever be able to duplicate it again. When “South Park” was launched on August 22, 1997 it had been about two weeks since I had moved away from parents' house. My two college friends and I had rented a third-floor, three bed room apartment in Winthrop, MA. This place was pretty damn nice. It was a large apartment on short dollars that put subsequent places I lived in to shame.

Aside from the large rooms, one of the great things about this place was its proximity to Boston and despite my meager earnings as a fund accountant (and later a reporter for a mid-sized city weekly) we’d all venture into Boston every Friday and Saturday night determined to quench our thirsts. When we got back from the latest Boston bar adventure, we’d end up staring at the TV hoping for nudity or sports scores. One of the first nights we came back from Boston, we got something a bit more interesting.

In the mid- to late-90s, Comedy Central was still trying to find itself. It would run hours and hours of crappy 80s comedy flicks, warmed-over sitcoms and a bunch of dated stand up "specials". Every once in awhile it would debut a new series, but it usually died on the vine never lasting more than a season or two. In therms of standout performers, the biggest star that Comedy Central had at the time was Craig Kilborn who hosted “The Daily Show” and that’s because most people knew him as the sarcastic 2 am SportsCenter anchor who was among the first to escape Bristol, Connecticut. Other than that, it was a wasteland.

With shows like "Beavis and Butthead", "The State" or "The Half-Hour Comedy Hour", MTV was a better place for laughs despite the channel being known for music.

We weren’t expecting much that late Saturday night when my buddies and I were drunkenly channel surfing and wound up on some crudely animated kids cursing a blue streak, threatening to kill each other and witnessing a gigantic alien anal probe sticking out of the fat, obnoxious kid’s ass. It was a jarring enough image that we dropped the clicker and watched the rest of the episode. And then another, and another, and another, and another—Comedy Central was running a marathon that night and we were completely blown away.

We were shocked at how unlikeable the fat kid was and how much he hated the Jews (is his name Cartman or Carmen?) and we were taken aback at how the kid in the orange sweat shirt died in every single episode. I was really surprised at how bad the animation was, but I was more surprised at how I couldn’t take my eyes off the show. And there was a reason for that. Even though I was a devoted “Simpsons” disciple and often told people who ripped on the show for being “just a cartoon”that it wasn’t the medium, it was the message that made that show great, I didn’t truly realize until watching “South Park” exactly what that meant. Because “The Simpsons” has very good animation and terrific writing it wasn't until that I saw show with great writing and shoddy animation was it proved that ultimately it doesn’t matter how well the animation was done, it really was about the writing.

And “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone could really write a great story.

My friends and I became obsessed with the show at this point. And it wasn't just us. It seemed that overnight everyone knew who Stan Marsh, Kyle Broflovski, Eric Cartman, and Kenny McCormick were. If someone talked about Scuzzlebutt you knew that he understood that this was a monster who lived in the woods and had Patrick Duffy for a leg. When someone referenced Mr. Hanky you knew that that person was talking about a literal piece of shit that only appeared around Christmas. And if one of your buddies “pulled a Stan” when talking to a girl, you knew that he was so nervous that he threw up (whether literally or figuratively) all over her.

Parker and Stone were clever enough to add these really surreal moments and characters to some great story lines. Not only did it put the two creators on the map, but it also made Comedy Central a top-tiered channel enabling it to shed it’s reputation as a place where bad movies go to be rerun into infinity. Before the Jon Stewart-hosted “Daily Show”, this was the only show that kept people coming back to the channel week after week.

My roommates and I had completely different schedules but there was only one thing that all of us cleared the decks for: Wednesday nights at 10:00 pm. We were on our couch watching “South Park” and laughing until our sides hurt. And while the community aspect is something that I won’t experience again, what I find most fascinating is how this show sneaked up on us. The internet was still in its infancy in 1997, it wasn’t the sprawling source of information that it is today and even if it was, I wasn’t connected to it. I wasn’t living in a vacuum as I used to read at least two newspapers a day and was able to keep up with popular culture through television and radio.

But “South Park” came out of nowhere. If I hadn’t been drinking that night, I’m not sure when I would have run into this show. I assume that it would be at least by October of that year, because Comedy Central marketed the hell out of it, but for the first three or four weeks, it was nice to seemingly be in on the cutting edge of something that you knew was going to be huge. And it was.* Now, that doesn't happen. Thanks to the internet, most people know about TV shows and movies weeks if not months before they show up.

* My wife, who was going to school at American University when "South Park" started airing, told me that her entire dorm was as obsessed about the show as my friends and I were. She said that they would use their dial-up modems to download episodes, wait the hour or two and then watch them. Because of the tiny bandwidth, it was often tough to discern exactly what was happening, but she said that they enjoyed the dialogue the most. Again, the lesson here is: message NOT medium.

Suddenly everyone was wearing a “South Park” t-shirt, the mall was overstuffed with “South Park” tchotchkes*, they were on the cover of “Rolling Stone” (when that meant something) and everyone was imitating Cartmen’s voice or quoting the show (“Oh my God! You killed Kenny!” or “Screw you guys, I’m going home.” or “Sweeeeeet”). By March 1998 it was starting to get to be a bit much and the show was growing stale.

* I had Kyle, Cartman and Kenny key chains sitting on my computer, a post card of bit character Pip on my bulletin board at work and a “South Park” sticker on my wall. So, I was definitely a part of this merchandising madness and I am convinced my boss thought that I was a 12-year-old.

The one shining light was on April 1, “South Park” was finally going to reveal who Cartman’s father was. A lot of people that I knew were terribly excited about this and couldn't wait for the show to air. When April 1 came, the show wasn’t about Cartman’s father rather it was a joke episode centered around the South Park boys’ favorite cartoon those farting Canadians “Terrence and Phillip”. After the first five minutes of this episode passed, my roommates and I kept waiting for the big reveal. After the first commercial break came back with more Terrence and Phillip, we knew that the big reveal wasn’t going to happen.

This angered a lot of fans, so much so that Comedy Central sent out a press release the following day promising that the conclusion to the first part of “Cartman’s Mom is a Dirty Slut” (which aired on February 25) was going to air on April 22. It sucked, but three weeks was better than never so again, the clock ticked down to finding out who Cartman’s father was. The episode never lived up to the hype (these things never do) and it turns out the Cartman’s mother was a hermaphrodite who impregnated herself.

This letdown, combined with the Terrance and Phillip debacle*, soured me on “South Park”. I would catch it now and again, but I kept waiting for the rug to be pulled out from under me—once a show loses a viewer’s trust, it’s hard to get it back. To me Stone and Parker were just a bit too clever for themselves and overplayed their hand. I was pretty done with the show.

* After a few years have passed, I can see now that the Terrance and Phillip April Fool’s Day show was actually brilliant. Parker and Stone were riding high on the show’s popularity and as we would see in subsequent seasons, they rip on everything. Fooling your own fans is tough to do, but they did it. And more importantly, they did it really well. In my circle of friends, finding out who Cartman’s father was was as big of a deal as finding out who killed JR Ewing or what was in Al Capone’s vault (how’s that for timely references). When the T&P episode was aired it was like a big fuck you to the fans, but in a way that borrowed from the classic William Shatner SNL skit where he told a roomful of Star Trek fans, “You need to get a life. TV isn't that important.” This message is never truly understood at the time and only after you separate from your obsession do you truly get the meaning.

During the next few years, I stayed away from “South Park” and looked down my nose at people who still watched it. I just found the entire show to be a copy of “The Simpsons”, which looking back wasn’t true. Especially since “South Park” devoted an entire show to the criticism and made the point that “The Simpsons” have been on for 20 years and have over 400 episodes and that there are only so many stories that can be told.

A few years into my self-imposed “South Park” exile, a friend of mine was talking about the show and asked if still watched it. I said no and gave my myriad pompous reasons to which he countered that I should give it another shot, he said it was still really funny. That night I sat down and watched an episode and he was right, it really was funny.

I became a big “South Park” fan again, only this time is different because it seems like there is a much smaller group of fans. Because of that the newer episodes are a bit different than the older ones. There is more a topic du jour where Parker and Stone stand on their cartoon pulpit and lob bombs at that week’s hypocrites. The show takes less than a week to write and animate, so turn-around time on various topics are insanely quick.

While that week's targets are easy and really unnecessary, for the most part Parker pens episodes that make solid points. When he does do one of these episodes, the episode tends to devolve from a well-thought out argument into one where a universally detestable (like Paris Hilton or Snooki from "Jersey Shore") gets their comeuppance. And while that's nice (and cathartic) to see, you almost want to tell him that he's better than that and there's a better way of satirizing the rich and stupid.

And the duo are equal opportunity offenders. You would expect a couple of Colorado-born, young-ish, pothead cartoonists and social commentators to be lean to the left side of the political spectrum. But they aren’t, I believe that Parker (the main writer) is a Libertarian, so his ideology is with neither the Republicans nor the Democrats. And this is a good thing.

While “South Park’s” message and satire is a bit heavy-handed and a little too black-and-white at times, it’s still a thought-provoking show. It forces the watcher to be literate on not only pop culture but on the world around them. And that’s a good thing.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Definition of Pandering or Where the 1950s Truly Comes Alive!

Late last week my wife, her grandmother, my infant daughter and I met for lunch at Johnny Rockets in the mall. If you’ve never heard of Johnny Rockets, it’s an overpriced restaurant chain located in most malls that are decorated to look like a 1950’s style hamburger joint. Basically, you’re paying 25% extra for the ambiance.

Or at least it’s supposed to be ambiance. Johnny Rockets is decorated to look like what someone else thinks that a 1950’s hamburger joint looks like. All of the waiters and waitresses wear pristine, almost blinding white uniforms, there is a lot of polished chrome in the restaurant and at each of the booths there is a non-working mini jukebox packed with the hits of the 50s and 60s. The eatery’s draw is that this is supposed to be a time machine that will take you (even minorities!) back to a simpler time where the nation “rocked ‘round the clock”, had a best friend named Potsie and ate hamburgers until their sinuses were impacted with meat.

The pandering doesn’t come from the retrieval of false memories or even the fact that Johnny Rockets’ unspoken promise of taking you back to a simpler time still includes modern inflation – seriously $2.29 for a Coke plus extra thirty-nine cents for a shot of vanilla? They had names for people like this in the 1950s: Pinkos.

No, the pandering comes when you peruse the menu. They have the normal fare that you’d find in any number of chain restaurants or diners: hamburgers, hot dogs, milk shakes, $2.29 Cokes. But there was something in the menu that caught my eye, it was listed right there on the second page above the onion rings: American fries.

American fries? AMERICAN fries?

Someone is still waging that battle against the French? I couldn’t believe it, it had been so long since I heard the word Freedom fries that I thought that this was a goof. I assumed that American fries were the same as french brothers except there was probably a ton more cheese and chili plopped on it and it was adorned with mini-American flags and sparklers. Essentially, the July 4th of fried potatoes.

Thinking that this was a joke, I ecclesiastically ordered these American fries and waited for the inevitable spud spectacular that was obviously heading my way. Would they bring out a brass band? Nah, that was too expensive. But I’m sure there would be a radio blasting the “1812 Overture” while sparkler illuminated my dish and mini-American flags crisply waved in a breeze of grease and salt. But it wasn’t too be, I got a dish of plain old, normal French fries and a little paper bowl to put my ketchup in.*

So disappointing. So blase. So unAmerican.

* At Johnny Rockets the server usually cheerfully dumps the ketchup in the paper bowl for you, so you don’t have to messy your delicate hands. I guess this was how it was done everywhere in the 1950s. But for some reason our waitress didn’t do that last Thursday, which is the way that it’s done everywhere in the 2010s. Sherman, alert Mr. Peabody, our time machine restaurant is busted.

In any event, this new naming technique got me thinking about the whole French fry foofaraw of a few years ago. In 2003 when the United State boldly invaded Iraq looking for WebMDs—or was it WMDs, I forget—the French government loudly protested this move. Americans, being Americans, didn’t take too kindly to anyone—especially the fucking French—telling us what to do, so a movement began to strike back at the cheese-eating surrender monkeys. Would bombing the Eiffel Tower do the trick? No. How about a gigantic tariff on cigarettes and berets? No. The only way we could strike back was to do something that a Frenchman would do be extremely passive aggressive and petty. The collective American mind worked together and came up with a plan to call french fries, Freedom Fries.

Eat that, Paris!

According to the always reliable Wikipedia: “On March 11, 2003 Representatives Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) and Walter B. Jones, Jr. (R-North Carolina) declared that all references to French fries and French toast on the menus of the restaurants and snack bars run by the House of Representatives would be removed. House cafeterias were ordered to rename French fries "freedom fries". This action was carried out without a congressional vote, under the authority of Ney's position as Chairman of the Committee on House Administration, which oversees restaurant operations for the chamber. The simultaneous renaming of French toast to "freedom toast" attracted less attention.”*

* I don’t give a shit about French toast because I think it tastes like rat steak, but if you were a French toast fan, wouldn’t you be pissed that your favorite food got the short end of the stick? I mean, it’s already in the breakfast ghetto, way behind in popularity to the superior pancake and the versatile egg. This was the opportune time for the French toast to take the national spotlight and it failed miserably.

The French embassy didn’t comment on the action, but did say (in I’m sure the nicest way possible) that French fries weren’t originally from France, they were from Belgium. In fact, Thomas Jefferson was probably the first person to identify fried potatoes as being cooked in the “French style”. “Irregardless,” screamed the American public and the name Freedom fries stuck like a fine polymar.

Until a little over two years later. When, again according to Wikipedia, “In May 2005, Representative Jones, having arrived at the belief that the United States went to war "with no justification", said of the "freedom fries" episode: "I wish it had never happened." By July 2006, the House had quietly changed the name of the two foods in all of its restaurants back to "French fries" and "French toast".”

So while the whole country was really, really, REALLY angered by the French*, they eventually realized that this whole thing was a bit silly and the French returned to the fry and everything was cool again.**

* That Wikipedia article on Freedom fries said that the makers of French’s mustard were so freaked out as being seen as anti-patriot that they wrote up a press release assuring people that they were NOT a French company and that the mustard’s name was derived from a family name. The best part is that they used the release to assure America that they were patriotic as hell.

I’m not sure if the company’s CEO took a public patriotic test, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he did.

** This isn’t the first time that America changed names of foodstuffs. During World Wars I and II as hamburgers were called “Liberty Steaks”, sauerkraut was called “Victory Cabbage” and frankfurters were called “Hot Dogs”. I can totally see the need for changing the name of French fries because all Germany did was genocide about bunch of people. France had the balls to call us out on a unjustified war. It’s really the same thing if you think about it.

Which brings us back to Johnny Rockets. I would guess that the reason why they didn’t use the Freedom fries moniker is because another restauranteur, Neal Rowand of North Carolina (of course), has copyrighted the word “Freedom fries” and they’d probably have to pay a couple of bucks to use it*. Patriotism isn’t free, asshole and there’s always a dollar to be made during war.

* You know who doesn’t mind spending a few bucks to offer Freedom fries at his red, white and blue restaurant? The most patriotic sumabitch who ever lived, Mr. Toby Keith. He owns the “I Love This Bar & Grill” chain of bars and grills and you can be damned sure that you won’t find any FRENCH fries anywhere.

Presumably Johnny Rockets went with the cheaper and more generic “American fries” for their menu to prove to everyone who stuffs himself into one of their booths that they are the most patriotic restaurant ever! I mean, it’s obvious right? It’s right there on their menu, see? No, Senator McCarthy, I do not consort with communists, Muslim sympathizers or the French. No. I am most assuredly NOT unAmerican! Ronald McDonald is damn liar! This is an outrage!

It seems to me that Johnny Rockets encapsulates the 1950s perfectly.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Who’s Cooler: Zack Morris vs. Brandon Walsh?

Note: I can't seem to find any pictures of Priestley and Gosselaar together on the internet, so I decided to choose this picture of Tiffani Amber Thiessen instead. It's only because she straddles (HA!) both worlds so easily. It's not because I thought she was super hot. Not at all.

In the early 1990s, there weren’t a lot of TV stars that teenage boys could emulate. They were either too weird (Urkel), too stupid (Joey Lawrence), too shady (Bud Bundy), too Christian (Kirk Cameron), too smart (Doogie Howser) or way too cool (Will Smith). And yes, I realize that I mixed real names with character names, so if you want me to be consistent here they are: Jaleel White, Joey Russo, David Faustino, Mike Seaver, Neil Patrick Harris and Will Smith. There were really only two lead characters that a young man could aspire to be: Beverly Hills 90210’s Brandon Walsh (Jason Priestley) or Saved By the Bell’s Zack Morris (Mark Paul Gosselaar).

I guess if you wanted to be AC Slater (Mario Lopez) or Dylan McKay (Luke Perry) that’s ok, but those guys were second-bananas*. And I suppose if you had a blonde afro mullet, Steve Sanders (Ian Ziering) could be someone to look up to, but he was at best a third-banana. And if you were your group's loser you could always find similarities between yourself and David Silver (Brian Austin Green) or Samuel "Screech" Powers (Dustin Diamond). But why would you want to do that to yourself?

We’re going to stick with the leads of these two shows and break it down, 19 Thoughts style. By the way, we’re only going as far as high school graduation since SbtB had one craptastic year outside of Bayside High and 90210 had four crappy years after the gang graduated from West Beverly High School.

* He was called Sideshow Luke Perry for a reason.

Height: According to the interweb, Brandon is no more than 5’8” and Zack is 6’0”. The internet is usually right about this sort of thing. Point: Morris.

Dudes: Brandon hangs around Dylan, Steve and hapless tool David Silver (who may be white, but he ain't vanilla-take that Robert Van Winkle!). Zack hangs around Slater and hapless tool Screech. Silver and Screech's lameness cancel each other out, so it’s down to the rest of the posse. Dylan’s a puss, but he’s rich and he’s the most popular dude at WBHS and Steve Sanders tries so hard at being cool that he's uncool thus making any of his friends look cool by comparison. Slater was a meat head but vied for ultimate popularity at Bayside, Zack had to befriend him in order that he wasn't usurped. That's a coward's move, Zack should have crushed him. Basically, Brandon’s friends are an updated version of “Happy Days”* while Zack’s friends were rivals that couldn't be squashed and a spastic loser. Point: Walsh.

* The analogy: Dylan = Fonzi, Brandon = Richie, Potsie = David Silver and Ralph Malph = Steve Sanders. The only wrench in this theory is that Potsie and Richie were best friends, but David and Brandon never were. But I do like how Potsie and David are both annoyingly bad singers and Malph and Sanders have perms.

Self-righteous chick friend: Both were supposed to be the “soul” and "conscience" of each show, both sucked. Hard. Episodes stopped when they were built around these two. Brandon had Andrea Zuckerman (Gabrielle Carteris, who looked like she was 50-years-old) who made a big deal about every slight, real or imagined. While Zack had Jessie Spano (Elizabeth Berkley) who made a big deal about every slight, real or imagined. Jessie was a main ingredient of the super-group “Hot Sundaes” and she almost OD’ed on caffeine pills. Andrea just crabbed that everyone at WBHS was antisemitic. Point: Morris.

Other chick friends: Brandon had his bitchy twin sister Brenda, Donna Martin and Kelly Taylor (Jennie Garth). Zack had Kelly Kapowski* and Lisa Turtle (Lark Voorhies). Shop-a-holic Donna Martin was the catalyst for one of the all-time great 90210 episodes (Donna Martin graduates **) and Brandon ended up getting into Kelly Taylor’s pants. Zack ended up doing the same to Kelly Kapowski and fooled around with shop-a-holic Lisa Turtle. That leaves Brenda as the tipping point and she made the show’s engine run. Point: Walsh.

* As you are well aware, Tiffani Amber Theissen made a splash as the Walsh’s bad girl cousin (she smoked pot, used a fake ID to get into bars, and had sex with every dude in the cast), Valerie Malone on 90210. She replaced real-life bad girl Shannon Doherty (Brenda). There aren’t a lot of actresses who can pull this dramatic 180 and was quite a shock to the system. Especially when you watched SbtB in the afternoon and she was worried about kissing Zach and tehn two hours later she was on 90210 screwing everything in sight.

** The whole premise behind this episode was terrific: Donna gets drunk, gets caught at the prom and is barred from graduating with her friends. This has her so down in the dumps, that the gang rallies behind her and tells the school board that no one is graduating unless Donna graduates. The school board folds, the kids cheer and Steve yells, “Let’s get a keg!” Donna Martin did indeed graduate.

The Tori Spelling Factor: Someone once said that Tori Spelling was the zeitgeist of the 1990s. That was supposed to be funny, but it's kind of true. And that's just so fucking sad. Spelling was a cast member on both shows: she played Donna Martin on 90210 and was Screech’s girlfriend Violet Bickerstaff on Saved by the Bell. She wasn’t good on either of them. However, she was on less episodes of SbtB than 90210 and her dad wasn’t the executive producer of that show either. Point: Morris.

Sex: Brandon had a nice run of “going all the way” in high school. Zack had none and seemed very ok with it. Point: Walsh.

Daddy issues: Brandon had the most clueless (and therefore the greatest) TV dad of all time: Jim Walsh. He was brilliantly played by the one and only James Eckhouse. Morris had three different actors playing his notoriously absent father. It’s my contention that all of Morris’ stunts were constant cries for attention from his daddy. Point: Walsh.

Oedipus Complexes?: None here. Both mothers were rarely seen and when they were on camera, weren’t listened to. They were ornaments to prove that the dads were straight as arrows. It seems to me that Brandon may have wanted to have sex with his sister, but that's not really the same thing, is it? Plus, that taboo sexual tension was part of what made the show great. Point: None.

Dealings with authority figures: As we have seen with the Donna Martin Graduates episode, Brandon Walsh held a lot of sway with the Beverly Hills School Board and the school's vice-principal, Ms. Teasley—not to mention a few teachers (like senior English teacher Gil) and other advisers. Zack Morris had the Big Kahuna of Bayside High School wrapped around his finger: principal Richard Belding (Dennis Hastings). Belding was so thoroughly flummoxed by Morris, that by the end of the series Zack was often trying more outlandish schemes because he was so bored of bamboozling Belding. It was almost as if he wanted to get caught and punished which I think has to do with Morris’ daddy issues. It’s obvious that Belding was a surrogate father to the lonely student and Morris’ actions were the typical teenage rebellions that were normally aimed at parental units. Arm chair psychology aside, Morris ran BHS so point: Morris.

Hangouts: Brandon had the Peach Pit where he had to work. Morris had the Max where he seemed to get free food. Point: Morris.

Hangout Owners: Armed with old-school wisdom, veteran B-actor Nat Bussichio—played with panache by Joe E. Tata—owned the Peach Pit and served up mega burgers and advice. The Max was run by a failed magician named Max (so imaginative) whose specialty was the Max Burger (doubly imaginative). The dude was a fucking failed magician who named burgers after himself, point: Walsh.

Work: Brandon slaved at the gang’s hangout the Peach Pit during the school year and when it got hot, he took a job at the Beverly Hills Beach Club. While it seemed like he was being mature, he ended up spending half of his shifts talking to his buddies who all hung around his places of work. Morris was too busy scheming about ripping off his classmates to get a real job. Point: push. Walsh made the system work for him, Morris worked the system.

Race Relations. There was an episode of "90210" that dealt with the Rodney King riots where Brandon and his Crenshaw High School newspaper editor counterpart traded op-ed pages. Brandon angered the community by inviting the Crenshaw kids to their West Bev dance (THEY'RE PROBABLY ALL IN A GANG!). But David Silver angered everyone by rapping. However, the kids learned that they aren't so different and started hip-hop line dancing. The Crenshaw editor started dating Andrea (how SHOCKING!). Also Brandon's boss at the beach club was a soap-opera watching black guy and the short order cook at the Peach Pit was a dude named Willie who seemed like a terrific back ground actor.And Silver and Andrea are both Jewish. On SbtB, aside from Lisa Turtle, there was one black nerdy kid who talked like Froggy from "Our Gang". Mario Lopez is Hispanic, I guess. Point: Everyone! Hooray!

I was backstage and I heard that you kids liked ALCOHOL!: It’s true, Paul Stanley, these kids did like alcohol. Unfortunately they liked it a bit too much and both crashed their cars. Walsh crashed the very symbol of his Minnesota roots,what made him so different from the Hollyweirdos, a piece of crap car named Mondale (after former presidential candidate and piece of crap car, Walter Mondale). Morris crashed Lisa Turtle’s parents’ car after a toga party gone awry. Also Morris injured his friends. At least it took Brandon more than one party to fuck up his life and he didn’t take anyone down with him. Point: Walsh.

Drugs!: Both were anti-drug, however only Brandon got high. And that was inadvertently when his girlfriend spiked his club soda with ecstasy*. Brandon also shit his pants when he found out that Steve was taking steroids. The only time the Saved by the Bell gang saw drugs is at a party for superstar celebrity Jonny Dakota (who ironically chose BHS as the site for his “There’s No Hope With Dope” PSA). Dakota is passed a joint, takes a comically large hit and hands it to Kelly. Morris busts in at the last minute (the gang had left when Screech did something stupid and Zack had forgot his jacket) and tells Dakota that no one does drugs in HIS school. The commercial shoot is ruined and superstar NBC President Brandon Tartikoff is brought in to replace Dakota and film the commercial. Point: I don’t know, at least Walsh did something.

* Although Brandon was angry about being drugged, he was more angry when his psycho girlfriend (Emily Valentine) showed up to help the gang build a float wearing his “lucky Minnesota Twins” jersey. He was absolutely incredulous about the gall that this gal had wearing his shirt. To be honest, I’d be pretty pissed off about that too. Emily ends up burning down the kids’ float. Not sure what happened to the shirt.

Cars: After destroying Mondale, Brandon worked his ass off for a summer and got a nice, late-60s Mustang that he thankfully didn’t name after a failed presidential candidate. Morris had his two feet. Point: Walsh.

Athletics: Despite being two inches taller than Spud Webb and less black, Brandon made the WBHS junior varsity basketball team, which (rightly, I might add) pissed Steve Sanders off. He also made the track team and was a pretty good hockey player. Zack Morris found his Native American roots and ran really fast. All story lines were pretty far-fetched (aside from the hockey one), but at least Morris looked like an athlete. Point: Morris.

Intelligence: Brandon did very well on his SATs, was salutatorian and was accepted to numerous top-tiered schools, but chose to go to a state school with his buddies. There was one episode where Morris literally aced his SATs and he chose to go to a state school with his buddies. Aside from being crafty, Morris was kind of a dumb ass, so I can see why he did well on standardized testing. Point: Walsh.

Musicianship and Music Influences: Morris was in a band called “Zack Attack” and he played lead guitar. His room had posters of the Bangles and Janet Jackson on the wall. Walsh was famous for not being able to sing or dance and his room had a poster of the Neville Brothers* on his wall. The lameness in poster choice cancels each other out, and at the very least, Zack was actually in a band. Point: Morris.

* Seriously, the Neville Brothers? I would have been less shocked if Brandon had a poster of Neville Chamberlain on his wall. I can guarantee you that if you did a nation-wide sweep, there would be zero teenagers with a Neville Brothers CDs in their collection, never mind a poster on their walls. Any time that they would show Brandon’s room, that poster took me out of the story and I’d end up wondering whether the producer was a huge fan and wanted to subconsciously influence America’s teens. It was just weird.

Kids: Brandon and Steve once had to take care of a sullen teenage mother’s baby named Joey. They did this during a montage while Concrete Blonde’s song “Joey” was playing in the background. I wonder if the producers asked each other whether the viewers would understand the significance, especially when the lead singer warbled, “Joey, I’m not angry any more!”. Zack Morris once delivered a baby in a stuck elevator. Bonus! The baby was Mr. Belding’s son! How’s that for ham-fisted subtlety! Point: America for having these two great story lines.

Miscellany: Brandon Walsh had pretty cool hair and along with Luke Perry brought the sideburns back into popularity. Zack Morris seemed aware that he was on a television show and would freeze time and talk directly to the audience. That’s post-modernism, baby! Zack also was one of the first fictional characters on television to have a cell phone. A phone so stupidly large that it's a point of reference when discussing the immense size of things. Point: Morris.

The winner in this very scientific survey is Brandon Walsh by a whopping 8-7 count. So the next time you’re at a fancy dinner party or having cocktails with the boys and someone brings up this question, you are now able to answer this question without any hesitation.And the best part is that you'll have this scientific study as absolute proof when you are called a liar and a heretic.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

We're Pretty Close to Being the Jetsons -- Media Wise, At Least

The other day I drove to our local Borders bookstore because I had heard that there was a liquidation sale going on and everything in the store was at least 25% off. Borders is going through Chapter 11 bankruptcy and needs to close a bunch of shops and sell off as much product as they possibly can—incidentally, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that Best Buy might be next. My family and I walked around the store, I got something and my oldest daughter got a few books and we left.

I’ve always been a big fan of going to book stores, browsing the aisles and picking up a tome or two but this exercise is something that might be going away in the near future. While I don’t think that all book stores are closing tomorrow (people will always want to buy books and thus there will always be a spot for the mom-and-pop store), but it is beginning to look like the large brick and mortar book stores are becoming extinct.

And people like me might be part of the blame.

There are a few reasons for this, with main reason one having nothing to do with me. The Borders in my store is two stories and is pretty large. More than half of the first floor is devoted entirely to DVDs and CDs. And they’re not cheap, a CD is about $17 and a new DVD is more than $30. Even with the 25% off, it was be cheaper to go to Newbury Comics or Best Buy to get what you want. And who pays full price for DVDs and CDs any more?

Borders not recognizing a shift in paradigms when it came to music buying is simply ignorance. What the store is selling isn’t hard-to-find CDs, you can find the new Coldplay album anywhere. The same goes for a new movie. Why would I want to spend $35 at Borders for “Iron Man 2” when I can go to Best Buy and get the same flick for $20?

The other two things that are murdering places like Borders is, which sells books at cheaper prices—not to mention cheaper music and movies and people switching to eBooks. There’s nothing that Borders could do about, the web site just doesn’t have the overhead that Borders has and can slash prices to a bare minimum and still make money.It looks as if Borders tried to combat them by selling books on line too, but why buy from Borders online when you can get it cheaper at Amazon? Much like being unable to recognizing the death of CDs and online ordering, Borders was even slower to react to eBooks and didn’t come out with their own Kindle-type reader (the Kobo) until it was too late. By then it was another product in an over-saturated market. It may be the cheapest eReader on the market, but who cares? I’ll spend the extra $40 for a Kindle.

And that last sentence is something that I never thought that I’d say. Not so much that I’d spend extra amount of cash for a brand name, but that I’d even consider buying an eReader. At home I have three book cases chock full of books. It’s my one indulgence and for every Christmas and birthday I get at least one $50 gift card to Barnes and Noble. I've always surrounded myself with books and ever since I was a kid I wanted three things in my house: a bubble hockey game, a bar (my uncle had one in his house and it was awesome) and a library with shelves built into the wall stacked with books and a few comfortable, high backed, leather chairs in which to read.

But the reality is that I’m not going to own a home that I’ll be able to have my own library. I guess when my daughters move out of the house in 20-25 years, I can take over one of their rooms as a library but that’s a long time to wait. And in the mean time where am I going to store all of my books? And there in lies the rub, to quote Shakespeare. My wife and I don’t fight much, but the one thing that we have always butted heads on are my books. Her argument: they take up too much space, you’ve already read them and books aren’t decorations. My argument: but they’re my books.

Jerry Seinfeld once said this about books, “"What is this obsession people have with books? They put them in their houses like they're trophies. What do you need it for after you read it?” And to be honest, he and my wife have a point. I have no idea why I keep half the books I own*. It’s not like I need them for research or anything like that.

It's like the 20 years of Sports Illustrateds that I have in my basement. I have no idea why I keep them, especially now that Sports Illustrated has all of their magazines archived online, but I know that one day I'm going to need them.I just don't know for what.

I guess I have this secret wish that someone will come into our house and just stand in front of my shelves, mouth agape and just gasp at the collection I amassed. “Have you read all of these books? You must be a genius! And what a collection! So diverse, so eclectic! You are easily the most interesting person ever.” This has not happened. Yet.

So with the ever-growing book collection that is now taking up space in our guest bedroom, I’ve come to a conclusion that I have one of two choices: stop buying books or find a way to store books cheaply and without taking up a lot of space.

Enter's Kindle. Apparently this eReader has enough memory for over 3,000 books. And it doesn't take up much room, the reader itself is very thin. No larger than a hardcover, and slimmer than a pamphlet. Anyone who I have talked to about these things universally sings its praises: My life will be forever changed. It’s easier. It’s actually made reading more enjoyable. Reading in bed is a breeze. You can purchase a new book instantly as long as there is a WiFi connection and some Kindles don’t even need that. The only negative that I’ve heard is that airline stewardesses make you shut it off ten minutes before take off and landings.

And the price on the hardware is coming down too. I read an article in the New York Times last week where’s CEO has pretty much said that soon they’re going to give the hardware away (I think that he was being factious about the $0 price tag, but not the price coming down to virtually nothing) because the money isn’t in the Kindle itself, it’s in the books. It’s a brilliant strategy. Amazon still charges “normal” physical book prices (up to $15) for something that isn’t physical at all. So if you can get the hardware into people’s hands for a limited price, you’re going to make 10 times that amount when you sell them products that you don’t have to store, don’t need someone to sell and won’t ever go bad.

It’s literally the perfect item. It’s almost as if you’re selling air.

And that’s what I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around. When I purchase something, for the most part I like to be able to tangibly hold that object. When I buy an eBook, I’m really just buying the rights to the book. Yes, the book is mine, but at the same time, it doesn't really feel like it is. It’s hard to explain, but it almost feels like I’m just borrowing it. Even though I realize that's not the case, it's what I'm having trouble with.

It’s also why I haven’t completely dropped the CD habit either. I don’t buy a lot of CDs any more, maybe five or six a year at most. But when I do buy a new CD, I want the CD. I’ve purchased a bunch of singles from iTunes and have downloaded a bunch back in the day*, but I’ve never downloaded an entirely new album. Again, I think it’s the whole tangible thing.

* I was on the cusp of downloading music 10 or 12 years ago. My friend showed me how to set up an FTP connection through my dial-up and while it was fun, it was slow as hell (15 minutes for a song that could break up if you get a phone call). Then when Napster and Limewire and Kaaza came out, it was like Christmas. I got booted off of Napster thanks to Metallica or Dr. Dre, but a friend supplied me a patch and I was back online within a week. As sad as this sound, I don’t download any music because there’s nothing I really want. I suppose if I sat back and thought about it, I can think of a few tunes, but even though it’s easy and would take a few minutes to get comfortable with the software, it’s a hassle and not something that I miss too much.

Put it this way, we have a new TV that can go on-line and we have streaming Netflix. Aside from the myriad movies, there are a ton of seasons of different TV shows. For the last two weeks, I’ve been watching a few episodes of MTV’s “The State” every night. I was thinking of purchasing the DVD set, but what’s the point? As long as I have my Netflix membership, for all intents and purposes I own the set. I can watch it any time I want. But I always have a nagging feeling that the service is going to go away and one day I’m going to watch an episode of “The State” and won’t be able to.

I know that this isn’t the same as actually purchasing an eBook or a song off iTunes, because I actually own it. But I don’t physically own it and while today the Kindle is a pretty cool piece of machinery, in 15 years is it going to be this decade’s 8-track player? And if so, what happens to my books then? Will they be nothing but binary code that I can’t crack? At least with physical books, unless I get bumped on the head and lose my ability to read or a flood or fire destroys my house, I am guaranteed to enjoy them for the rest of my life.

And another thing is the social aspect of trading books and CDs. Some of the best times I had was going over my friend Shawn’s house in the late 90s to burn discs. He literally had an entire wall full of CDs (he bought his first disc at the dawn of the technology in 1989) and had thousands of CDs. It was cool to go over his place and spend an afternoon drinking beer, going through his catalog, finding something and making a CD* of it. Shawn has great taste in music and I’d walk out of his house with an armload of new mix CDs or tapes.

* Usually these CDs were called “Good Songs” because they were good songs that I liked—I’m very literally. But there were sub genres too such as “Hairy Velveeta”. These hair metal bands ironically chosen in the late 90s, but unironically enjoyed. And there were a few Good Songs CDs that I would play while on dates. Don’t laugh, my wife was impressed with the CD mix that I had playing during our first date. She especially liked that I included a Jeff Buckley track—his death was for naught, as I seemed deep (like the Mississippi).

It’s hard to do that now with iPods and MP3 players. Sure you can flick through a screen of CD covers, but it isn’t the same. It seems very sterile and uncluttered, sort of like the glimpses of the future that we get in movies and TV shows.*

* Quick tangent: did you ever notice that in the future there is no more clutter or mess? Everything is very neat, very orderly, very clean. All of the surfaces are a polished, immaculate metal. There are no extraneous things and everything is given to a person with a touch of a button. It seems to me that with the reduction of clutter (like books, DVDs, CDs, etc) and the housing of our media on clouds, we are moving toward this view of the future. BTW, ever since I started watching “Hoarders” I think that this is a very, very good thing.

In the end, I’m not bemoaning technology—I work in the technology field—and these new innovations really excite me, but I guess I’m just a bit hesitant about making the change because it seems we're trading in something.Books haven't really changed in a thousand years and it's good to have that connection to the past. But just because it's old, doesn't mean it's good. And it's not the vessel that's important, it's the message inside that vessel whether it be book, DVD or CD.

Progress must move on and like anything else, once the change is made I’m going to wonder how on Earth I lived with books, music and movies that took up so much real estate. So while my library dream might over, I hope that nothing ever takes the place of a home bar or bubble hockey.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

21. 30 Rock

Every few years there are two similar projects that appear on the pop culture horizon and force people to choose between one or the other: Madonna and Cyndi Lauper (I liked Lauper -- hey, she sang in USA for Africa, Madonna didn't), “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact” (I abstained from voting in this one), the Beatles and the Rolling Stones* (Beatles all the way). In 2006 there were two shows on the same network about the behind the scenes antics of a comedy show that grappled for a piece of America's viewing time: Aaron Sorkin’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” and Tina Fey’s “30 Rock”.

* Here’s something that you don’t see very often: a comparison between the Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley. The question is always this: “Who's better the Beatles or Elvis?” or "Who's better, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones?". You never, ever see “Who's better the Rolling Stones or Elvis?” Logic dictates that if this question is asked than Elvis, the Stones and the Beatles are so close in terms of talent, that it's not crazy to think that if A=B and A=C, then B should equal C. This never happens and the question is completely irrelevant with the Beatles becoming the undisputed number one rock band. Therefore, the question should revert to “Who is the second best rock act ever, the Stones or Elvis?”

Mystery solved, America.

During the summer prior to the debut of the two new series, it became apparent that only one of these shows will survive adn the Sorkin show was considered the favorite. For one thing he had the pedigree (“Sports Night” and “The West Wing” were loved by critics and audiences alike), it had a really good cast (Matthew Perry, Amanda Peet, DL Hughley, Brad Whitford) and to me, I thought that it was going to be a weekly docu-drama about how a show like Saturday Night Live really was run. Essentially, I thought that it was go to be a serial retelling of Tom Shales’ awesome book “Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live”.

It wasn’t. At all. It was over-written, boring, ponderous and at an hour each week, it seemed like the show never ended. The characters all seemed like assholes, which is ok (see "The Larry Sanders Show") but they were dull. And that's not ok. After three episodes, I stopped watching it at its regularly scheduled time. And after five episodes I permanently deleted it from my DVR.

My initial pretenses of “30 Rock” proved to be incorrect too. Since SNL creator Lorne Michaels was among the champions of the show and Fey was heading up the writing, I thought it was going to be a weekly Michaels lap dance reminding us how awesome he is. The cast wasn’t intriguing with Fey and former SNL co-stars Rachael Dratch and Tracy Morgan. And while I liked all three in small doses, the years that they were on SNL aren’t considered the golden years. I was waiting for the inevitable casting of Horatio Sanz, Jimmy Fallon* and Maya Rudolph to round out the suck fest.

* No two SNL castmates got on my nerves like Sanz and Fallon did. Every time they were in a scene together it seemed that they tried their best to break each other up—and often they did. I think that most “comedy rules” are stupid, but one that is important is to not laugh in the middle of a bit. It completely ruins the story for the audience and the performers look like idiots. The fact that both of them did this week after week after week without any recourse, soured me on SNL for a long, long time.

But I was completely wrong about “30 Rock”. While “Studio 60” billed itself as a drama about a comedy show (and looking back, that seems a bit absurd), “30 Rock” was lighter and also played loose with the sitcom format using a lot of flashbacks and cuts. It mirrored a lot of what made "The Simpsons" so great during their early seasons. While "30 Rock" wasn’t entirely original, it wasn’t entirely derivative either. Fey is obviously a student of pop culture with television history as her major and she uses her skills to drop a lot of pop references and have some terrific guest stars that make each episode really shine.People as diverse as Carrie Fisher to Will Arnett to Alan Alda to Matt Damon have appeared on the show. And while the guest star syndrome can get a bit stale when there is too many in one episodes, when there are only a few they are comedic gold.

But it’s not just the guest stars, Fey has surrounded herself with a bunch of terrific actors like Morgan whose Tracy Jordan is one of the most sublime, original television characters ever. He is so good that he seems to be blurring the line between his character and the real Tracy Morgan. Jane Krakowski took over for Dratch before filming began* is great as the self-centered, egotistical star Jenna, while Jack MacBrayer, Scott Adsit and Judah Friedlander round out an impressive ensemble cast.

* You have to wonder what kind of show “30 Rock” would be if Dratch was kept as Jenna. She certainly wouldn’t have been able to pull off the bulk of appearance jokes (Krakowski is very good looking) so I wonder what direction the character would have gone? Dratch stuck around as a sort of utility player for the first season playing dozens of eccentric roles, but she has disappeared from the show in recent seasons. From what I’ve read her and Fey were pretty close, I wonder if this spoiled their friendship at all?

But while all of the characters and their actors are first rate, there is no one like Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy. Wikipedia describes the character like this, “[Donaghy is] the decisive, controlling, suave and occasionally senseless network executive who constantly interferes with the goings-on at TGS.” (TGS is short-hand for “The Girlie Show with Tracy Jordan” the show within show that Fey’s character [Liz Lemon] is the head writer for.)

However, the explanation doesn’t really capture the essence of Donaghy. He’s the foil for Lemon, the suit that the creative types have to answer to. But he’s not her adversary, in fact he’s more of a mentor and a father figure which leads to a pretty interesting dynamic between the two. And that is what the show feeds on. Fey has said countless times that this relationship is not a Sam-Diane thing where Liz and Jack will eventually sleep with each other. She has flat-out said that this will never happen and I think that’s a great thing because once sex is introduced, the relationship between the characters change for the worse.

Right now, the give-and-take between the two seems fun and even though it was never aggressively pushed at the beginning of the show's run, like all good things it grew organically. And while the relationship is important, having Baldwin play Donaghy as "the heavy" is key. I’ve read a lot about him and he seems like one of the most put-together, cool men on the planet. While on Saturday Night Live, Janeanne Garofolo spoke about him as if she had a school girl crush. It doesn’t seem like impressing Garofolo is an easy trick, so his take on Donaghy seems to be grounded in some reality.

The only thing that is not fun about having Baldwin on the show is that there is always an underlying threat that he’s going to bolt the show. It seems as if he is selling himself short by being on a low-rated sitcom (no matter how brilliant) on a fourth-place network. After his public meltdown of a few years ago (where tapes of him screaming at his daughter were leaked) he talked openly about leaving the show. During the last year or so he has said that once his contract is over (following the 2012 season) he is considering jumping off the “30 Rock” gravy train. I sincerely hope that it doesn’t come to this because unlike Steve Carrell and “The Office”, I don’t think that “30 Rock” could afford to lose Baldwin. He is that integral to the show’s dynamic.

While writing this entry, I took a peek at the show’s ratings and they have never been good. During the first season they were mired in 102nd place and the highest season rating that they ever received was 69th. I don’t normally judge a show by its rating, but for one of the smartest shows on TV, how can this be? I think that quite simply, not many Americans want to watch a show that is smart. And let’s be honest here, “30 Rock” isn’t “Masterpiece Theater” or “NOVA” there are a few low-brow jokes that wouldn’t be completely out of place on a CBS show such as “Two and a Half Men”.

The problem is there aren’t many of these low-brow jokes and they’re aren’t usually strung together. Plus, I think that Fey drives a lot of middle America crazy. I don’t think that they like her too much because of her spot-on imitation of Sarah Palin and perhaps a smart, witty lady comedian scares them a bit or maybe it’s a backlash against an East coast liberal program. I don’t know. And admittedly, the last two reasons are just pure speculation on my part, but I don’t get why this show isn’t more popular. Most of the characters are original, most of the situations they find themselves in are a bit familiar but have an interesting twist and the acting and writing is terrific.

This has been a common theme for shows like “30 Rock” (see “Arrested Development”, “Freaks and Geeks”, etc.) and it’s nice to see a network ignore the ratings and continue to pump out shows that are both smart and funny. And while the program is scheduled to run until the end of the 2012 season, one has to wonder how long NBC will stick with it after that.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Songs no New Englander Should Ever Karaoke

(I have no idea who is pictured above, I ran a Google image search for "New England Karaoke" and that's what popped up.)

As a rule, I don’t do karaoke. For one thing, it’s not the late 90s and the other is I can’t sing at all. Well, that’s not absolute true, I’ve done karaoke twice and each time I’ve been pretty hammered*. Once me and a couple of my buddies did the Doors “Alabama Song” at a newspaper Christmas party—and how a tune from a 1920s German opera didn’t get the crowd rocking, I’ll never know.

The other time was at a bachelor party—yes, this was probably the inspiration for both Hangover movies, I’m still working on suing the writers of the movie. While at a Cape Cod bar, a friend (the groom) put a bunch of our names in a hat and when the Karaoke DJ chose us, each one of us ambled on stage to sing our song. For the record I did Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer” and two things: it wasn’t that bad of an experience—I can see why Huey Lewis and Gwenyth Paltrow wasted a lot of money and did a movie** about this phenomenon. And two, I wasn’t half bad either, or at least that’s how I remember it.

* It’s amazing that I’m as old as I am and I still use the excuse “I’ve was pretty hammered”. I guess some things never change.

** I happened to catch this movie one lazy Sunday, why didn’t Huey Lewis sing “I Want A New Drug” or “Heart of Rock N Roll” or one of his jazzy tunes? Did the director think that the audience would be shocked out of the fantasy that the movie portrayed? Fuck that, half the time I was watching this flick I was wondering where Lewis had been for the last 20 years, why he chose this movie to mount a comeback and tried to figure out if he actually could be Paltrow’s father.

Anyhow, I was thinking about these experiences the other day and it occurred to me that there are certain songs that New Englanders should never perform under any circumstances. Let’s list them, shall we?

Heartbreaker by Led Zeppelin. Double whammy. Heart become “haht” and breaker becomes “breakah”. If Zeppelin had been made up of New Englanders, they’d have to steal a different blues song, wouldn’t they?

Hard Days Night by the Beatles. Ever hear someone from New England say the word “hard”? It’s the reason why there aren’t many famous Boston porn stars.

Hard Times by Run DMC, Achy Breaky Heart by Bill Ray Cyrus, Hard Charger by Jane’s Addiction, Heartbreak Hotel by Elvis Presley, Hard to Handle by the Black Crowes, Heart of Glass by Blondie, Kickstart My Heart by Motley Crue, Harden My Heart by QuarterFlash ... pretty much any song that has one of these two words in it.

Warm It Up by Kriss Kross. Not just for the pronunciation of the word “warm” in the title. But everyone knows that New England is where the East Coast Family was born. Back in the day, Kriss Kross messed with Another Bad Creation and got Bell Biv DeVoe, BoyzIIMen and the whole East Coast. Some feuds will never die no matter how many years go by. True fact: in some areas of Vermont, it is still legal to shoot someone when they are wearing their clothes backwards.

Piano Man by Billy Joel. Try a little originality on stage, my friend. Everyone sings Piano Man.

(You Got It) The Right Stuff by New Kids on the Block. This is true only in Roxbury.

Mr. Telephone Man by New Edition. This is true only in Dorchester.

Poker Face by Lady Gaga. Another mispronunciation miscue, however with dastardly results. You start singing polka face and the next thing you know, some asshole busts out his accordion. And unless that asshole is Weird Al, you’re in for a lot of trouble.

New York, New York by Frank Sinatra. You do remember what state you’re in, right?

You Give Love a Bad Name by Bon Jovi. Simply for the chorus alone. Also, don’t touch Living on a Prayer, either. That’s my song.

All Night Long, Hello, Dancing on the Ceiling by Lionel Richie. Lionel Richie? Fuck that guy.

Macarena by those two Spanish dudes whose names I’ve forgotten and are too lazy to Google. A New England accent in Spanish? No gracias.

There you go. Next time you find yourself in 1998 and stuck in a Massachusetts karaoke bar; remember these tips and you’ll leave the place with your life, a song in your heart and a lady on each arm.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

22. Dragnet

Let’s get this out of the way right now: “Dragnet” is not a great show, it’s a pretty good show, but it isn’t great. The most obvious question is, if this isn’t a great show, why is it on this list? The reason why I added this show to this list is because it taught me a thing about television shows, all shows can be made fun of and mocked.

I was way too young when this show (and we’re talking about the 98 episodes that aired from 1967-1970, not the ones that were broadcast in the 50s and certainly not the ones aired on the radio) had it’s initial run. I caught them when I badgered my father* into watching them on Nick at Nite or TVLand during the early 1990s.

* When this show started on Nick at Nite, I didn’t have cable in my bedroom and my dad controlled the downstairs TV with an iron fist. He would often say, “I hated this show when it was first on and there’s no way that I’m watching this crap now.” I literally had to beg him to watch an episode because he found “Dragnet” boring, obvious and just an overall mess. I’m not sure exactly what he thought of me for watching it—I tried to tell him that you needed to watch this show ironically (though I probably never said it like that). But I don’t think that he ever agreed with me that watching TV could be an active activity, rather than a passive one.

And holy cow, 98 episodes? The show started in January 1967 and ran through the end of the 1970 season when Jack Webb decided to focus on another show he was producing, “Adam-12”. That’s almost 100 episodes jammed into three-and-a-half seasons. That doesn’t happen today.

Webb, who wrote, produced, directed and starred in this show played the notoriously square cop Sargent Joe Friday. His partner was veteran TV actor Harry Morgan who played his partner Bill Gannon. Morgan would go on to greater fame in his subsequent show “M*A*S*H”. I’m not sure what kind of cases Friday and his partner (it wasn’t Gannon) solved in the 1950s, but in the series they made an effort to bust up the counter culture. And that meant hippies, teens and sometimes teenage hippies.

Showing the “strange and bizarre” world of the counterculture was the absolute life blood of the show. I’m not sure why Webb went in this direction, maybe hippies were scary to middle America and the older generation. Maybe these people had no idea what their kids were up to and they looked at this program as a way to peer inside their world.

But if the latter is true, they didn’t get much insight from “Dragnet”, in fact one could say that they got the exact opposite view of what their lives were. Even someone who was 20 years removed from the hippie movement could see that Webb had no idea how to write for or about young people. It was obvious that he didn’t have a grasp on their culture and what made them tick. Thus, there was no real attempt at any insight. To Webb and his conservative views, hippies and their ideas were just as dangerous as someone who wants to rob a bank.

That lead to a lot of unintentional comedy, which isn’t good for a show that is taking itself so seriously—but it’s good for an audience that was growing up in the age of irony. Their phrases were rote and robotic, the characters were cartoons and the situations they found themselves in (drugs, street gangs, overall no-gooding) were cliched and more comical than anything on TV at the time.

One of my favorite episodes was about a hippie kid named Blue Boy. If you haven’t seen this episode you may ask about the name—I don’t think that hippies referred to themselves as anything but their real names. Was it because of his affinity for the Thomas Gainsborough painting of the same name*? No. That was not it. Was it because the character liked to hold his breath? Nope. Think again. Was it because he favored homosexual oral sex? Bite you tongue, sir!

The reason why Blue Boy was called Blue Boy was because he painted half of his face blue and dropped a lot of acid. That’s it. That’s the only reason why he called himself Blue Boy.

* The characters from “Leave it to Beaver” have this same painting hanging in their living room. I know that this wasn’t intentional, but to me it was a nice bridge between the two best shows to watch ironically. More on LitB in the coming weeks.

At the beginning of the episode Blue Boy is wandering around, talking silly acid-head stuff (“I’m a tree! I have leaves!” while trying to plant himself in a hole)*, but not really bothering anyone. Friday and Gannon pick him up, sober him up, set him straight on the evils of drugs and he’s back on the streets. However, by the end of the episode, Blue Boy is dead—I think that he thought he was a bird and jumped off a building—and Joe and Bill just stare glumly at the body and shake their head. This was the parental freak-out pay off: your kids could be dead if they take even one hit of acid.

* Or at least what Webb thought that kids on acid say and do.

I’ve never done acid, but I know plenty of people who have dropped and this is not what they’re like. Do they say stupid things and act sort of weird? I suppose. But their entire personalities don’t disappear and they don’t become lucid morons.

And that was what was so great about the show, everyone knew it was complete bullshit, but it was fun to watch anyway because there aren’t a lot of shows perpetrate a level of intelligence that just isn’t there. A great portion of the audience was so much smarter and more worldly than the show, that you just had to feel sorry for it.

And worse, you had to feel sorry for the people who thought that this was real. “Dragnet” went to great lengths to let the audience know that, “the story they were about to see is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.” This was the disclaimer that came before the episode began and they ran a similar disclaimer at the end. Were the stories true? From what I’ve read, Webb was a pretty big police buff and would often talk to the officers at the Los Angeles Police Department to get ideas for the TV show. Hell, his badge number 714* was retired by the LAPD.

* Jack Webb was a huge baseball fan. The badge number 714 was chosen because that was the number of home runs that Babe Ruth hit in his career. The badge numbers of the Webb-produced “Adam-12” were 2430 and 744. I thought that there was some connection between these two numbers and baseball, but I can’t seem to find anything.

But no matter what era Webb lived in, a majority of these tales are completely sanitized and made to fit into the “Dragnet” mold of honest cops, crooked criminals and defenseless civilians. There is never any derision from the formula.

And the formula was as much the show as the actors and scripts, Webb and Gannon wore the same suit in every episode. There were six episodes (I believe) where Webb didn’t wear his gray flannel suit and those were when Friday was kicking back (or in one episode at college and sort of undercover) in his red cardigan sweater. The reason why they always wore the same stuff was because as the producer, Webb wanted to be able to splice older scenes where he and Gannon were walking around into newer episodes, saving both time and money. With a revolving array of different colored suits, this couldn’t be done.

And while the suits looked familiar, so did the actors. Many of the crooks and teens and concerned citizens were used in multiple episodes. You begin to notice this if you watch enough episodes, but if there is a “Dragnet” marathon on it’s inescapable. I don’t know whether Webb liked working with this people much or whether they were cheap labor. I suppose that it was a little bit of both.

As slow and silly as this show is, especially compared to the grittier cop shows that followed (could you imagine “The Wire” starring Joe Friday? He’d be dead before the opening credits ended) it does hold my interest for a half-hour. And while there is a lot to laugh at, Webb took his work seriously and it showed.

In an era where blacks and immigrants were reduced to cheap stereotypes, Webb never went that route. The black and Latino guys on the police force were as much a part of the LAPD family as anyone. Whether this is historically accurate is debatable, but like I said, Webb was a big fan of the police department and wanted them shown in favorable light. Considering the crap that all law enforcement was getting during that time (the late 60s) this is a pretty honorable attempt.

He wasn’t interested in showing the police officers that were smacking students on the head at anti-war rally protests, or the police that were firing tear gas at the 1968 Democratic Convention protesters or turning on the fire hose at black people demanding their rights from an unrelenting South. His interest was showing the every day beat cop, the honest-hard working guy that stood for what America once represented. His police officers were the ones who risked their lives capturing thieves and no-goodniks who made the ordinary citizen’s lives miserable.

Did he go overboard with the depiction? Of course, but if I was a police officer and had to hear people that I was sworn to protect call me pig every day, turn on the nightly news and see my brothers committing reprehensible acts, I wouldn’t mind entering Jack Webb’s world for 30 minutes. While the crime rate is a bit high, it seems like a nice place overall. And if one your crimes is not accurately portraying hippies, than that’s a misdemeanor in my book.

Everyone knows that hippies suck.