Monday, December 29, 2008

Cre-Comm grad learns how Flash works!

Red River College recently posted its annual holiday card (check it out here).

If I'm not mistaken, I believe some of the fine voicework (and perhaps Flashwork) is by none other than Nathan Bueddefeld: the first and only Cre-Comm grad to learn how Flash works and then do things with it.

And if Nathan didn't do the holiday card, it's OK, because I know he could have done it. Way to go, Nathan!

Nathan's first animation tour de force was called "Mortonomous," which he did for his IPP (Independent Professional Project) in second year. He was the first student to ever take his IPP into the world of animation, and he did a great job.

And now I must go, because even the word "Flash" makes me roll up into the fetal position under my desk and weep.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Great things about being alive in 2008

Reading: The New York Times

I realize that I say the words “New York Times” in class about a million times a year. I’m trying to cut down, really I am, but this paper shows regularly why the news matters, and how to cover it with class and style.

It also made me happy when CTV’s Murray Oliver stopped by the classroom earlier in the semester and said the same thing – even after all but two students said they’d heard of CTV Newsnet. Yipes – but that’s another story.

In Canada, the NY Times Sunday edition costs a fortune, and you get it a day late, but the Times’ Public Editor, the Ethicist, and Rob Walker’s “Consumed” column make it all worthwhile.

Best issue of the year included the magazine’s exploration of new media, called: “How we watch stuff now.”

Add a Starbucks chai latte to the mix, and I’m in Heaven (should that be a separate entry?).

Theatre: Sitting in the front row at Spring Awakening on Broadway

I’ve never before sat one foot away from a 12-year-old Broadway performer, especially one screaming, “You’re totally f***ed!” into my face, but everyone should experience it at least once.

“Yes,” I thought. “I am totally f***ed. Thanks for reminding me, young, talented person with your whole life ahead of you.”

Construction: The Canadian Museum For Human Rights. And (sigh) IKEA.

The first national museum outside of Ottawa will be right here in Winnipeg, and it looks like no one is going to be able to take it away from us before it’s built – not even the Globe & Mail and 208 survey respondents. Bastards.

And IKEA is coming to Winnipeg. It’s sad that the second story gets all the press, but at least we can move on as a people: we’ll never have to look at an empty lot again and silently wonder, “Could that be the future site of an IKEA?”

Film: WALL-E and Man on Wire

The two best films of the year made me forget how much I hate the modern-day theatre-going experience, what with the cell phones, the air hockey, and the frigging kids (how I hate “the kids:” always text messaging, yapping, and playing in my JELL-O tree).

WALL-E was the best interspecies romance since a rat asked out Brooke Shields in the Muppets Take Manhattan, and the environmentally friendly storyline about the last plant on Earth and the bloaty bloat bloaties who ruined it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Man on Wire was the best documentary – and film – of the year. Like all the best films every year, this one comes close to explaining the meaning of life. At the very least it ponders the question as it chronicles Philippe Petit’s illegal tightrope walk across the World Trade Center buildings in 1974.

The best part: the New York City cop looking shell-shocked and awestruck at a news conference as he explains what he’s just seen at 110 storeys up, and how he’ll likely be the only person who ever gets to see something like this.

TV: Letterman gets mad; the Shield and the Wire come to an end

Letterman is at his best when he’s angry at authority. And he went nuts when John McCain went AWOL from his show – ostensibly to go back to Washington to deal with the economic crisis, but really to hang out with Katie Couric on her “more important” show.

Letterman’s hilarious (and downright courageous) rants for the next week – up to and including McCain’s two “apology appearances” - were incredible. “I haven’t had this much fun since my last interrogation,” said the contrite McCain.

The Shield and the Wire are the two best TV shows of all time. One high octane (the Shield), the other more contemplative (The Wire), they came to an end with gripping and fitting series finales. Best of all: no cut to black. I wrote about the Shield here and the Wire here.

Food: Bistro 7 ¼ (Winnipeg); L’Enoteca (Radisson Hecla Oasis Resort)

Bistro 71/4 is one of Winnipeg’s few authentic upscale New York experiences; the owner working the grill like his life depended on it, the noisy and intimate room packed with advertising and fashion professionals, and the best mussels I’ve had in a long, long time.

L’Enoteca at Hecla was a huge surprise; one of the best steaks I’ve had in my life and great, personable service. BUT could we solve the problem with the reservations? The hotel front desk can’t take reservations for the restaurant, and has no idea whether it’s booked. No one answers the phone at the restaurant or, apparently, checks the messages. This should be an easy fix, guys. Hell, I’ll do it for one free meal a night. Result!

Videogames: Grand Theft Auto IV, Xbox 360

I found myself addicted to very few videogames this year, but GTA IV was the one that did it last summer, and offered the most bang for the buck. Great writing (check out those ad parodies on any of the radio stations) and a long, rewarding story arc that kicks the crap out of other “free roaming” games, like Mercenaries 2 (a great-looking game with a story that you can resolve in an hour).

My beef: I will never again roam a virtual world for upward of 10 hours shooting pigeons to get the big reward of…nothing!

Concerts: Secret Machines (Pyramid); Holy F**k (Park)

The Secret Machines put on the best show in front of virtually no one that I’ve ever seen (and that must make me "virtually no one!"). My article about it is right here.

And Holy F**k knocked my socks off at the Park Theatre. Until the sound guy told them that they couldn’t come back for an encore. No, because that would have brought us pleasure.

Comedy: Bill Cosby; Red River College’s Comedy Writing classes

I still can't believe how much Bill Cosby rules. More than Bob Dylan, according to my original article.

And what can I say about RRC's comedy writing classes this year, other than the fact that they ruled the school and the King's Head in equal measure? One first-year student told me that the first show was better than anything he's ever seen at Rumor's, and I would extend that to Just For Laughs. Who needs Russell Peters when you've got these guys?

Advertising: BzzAgent

Finally, we can charge people for "word of mouth media." And it's fun and you get free samples too! Check out how this works in my original article.

School: Creative Communications at Red River College

Yes, I know I'm instructor at Red River College; but if there's a better communications or media program in a better college with better students, then I don't know about it. And I don't want to know about it, or I might have to apply for a job there (har, har)!

See you in '09.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Is "word of mouth" finally an advertising medium?

One of the great things about being a teacher is watching information transform over time; what's "true" on the true-or-false test today, is often "false" tomorrow.

Case in point:

For the past six years, I've started the Introduction to Advertising class the same way: by asking the ludicrously simple question, "What is advertising?"

The question is great, because everyone thinks they know an "ad" when they see one. But very quickly, we usually get into some questionable territory:

- Is the logo on your T-shirt an ad?
- Is an instructor name dropping "Nabob Coffee" in class an ad?
- Is a guy dressed up as a Hostess Munchie on a street corner an ad?
- Is a product placement on a TV show an ad?
- Is a free sample an ad?
- Is a post to a message board about a product an ad?
- Is a fake post to a message board about a product an ad?
- Is your friend who says that the Dark Knight is a great film an ad?

After much debate, someone usually brings up the big question: "Is word of mouth advertising?"

For the past six years, I've said the same thing: it's not advertising - or even an advertising medium - because you can't go into an ad agency and say, "Give me $5,000 worth of word of mouth." Plus, it's not measurable. So there.

Next year, I may have to change my answer. And be a little less smug than usual.

Enter BzzAgent, a Boston-based, word-of-mouth agency that is, in fact, "selling chitchat."

I first heard about the company in Rob Walker's great book, Buying In. It's a must-read for anyone even marginally interested in advertising or the new methods that marketers are using to get more of our money without us knowing about it. The chapter on BzzAgent originally appeared in Walker's article in the New York Times, which you can see right here.

In a nutshell, BzzAgent connects marketers with its network of volunteers to talk up whatever the marketers are selling. BzzAgent says it has 500,000 of these volunteers, which it calls "Agents." Agents register themselves for free on BzzAgent's website, then volunteer to take part in buzz campaigns; they file reports and earn points, which they can cash into rewards.

Here's the trade-off: Agents get to be the first to try products, and marketers get to spread discussion among "the right people" to create brand interest, which is something that ads stopped doing a long time ago. And BzzAgent gets to brag about transforming conversation into "a targeted and measurable media channel." Pretty neat trick.

Being unable to resist a good deal, I registered as an Agent about a month ago. I first got BzzAgent's brochure in the mail, a handy dandy guide that includes a code of conduct (Don't lie about being an Agent!) and two pages of bumble-bee stickers. Another marketing trick, if I ever saw one.

A few weeks later, I got an e-mail asking me to be part of a buzz campaign for Nabob Coffee, which - you're right - I buzzed about earlier in this post. I registered online by answering a few questions and - voila - today I got my two free packages of environmentally friendly NABOB Coffee in the mail. Result!

A BzzAgent brochure in the package explains NABOB's sustainability commitment and its relationship with the Rainforest Alliance and suggestions about where an Agent might want to create buzz:

1. When others are discussing the environment;
2. When you're making, buying, or eating breakfast;
3. When you're waiting for a meeting to start at work;
4. When you're shopping for groceries, especially in the coffee aisle;
5. When you're recycling something;
6. When you're watching a coffee ad.

And suggestions, re: what to do with your free samples:

- Serve it to guests;
- Brew it at work;
- Re-use and display the container;
- Etc.

So, next semester, when I talk about this in class as a case study, will I be teaching, creating buzz, or both? And - if I'm honest about it - does it matter? Fascinating questions, and more complicated than "What is advertising?" I just hope I can cash my points in for something really cool - like a NABOB baseball hat.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Larsen's best songs of 2008

And the songs that changed the world forever in 2008 (disclaimer: for me) are:

1. Hot Chip - Ready for the Floor

Forget a posthumous Oscar nomination for Heath Ledger: this video features the definitive portrayal of the Joker AND Two-Face at the same time - months before the Dark Knight came out. And the song is groovy too. Take that, Prince, what with your goofy Batdance and all.

2. Weezer - Pork and Beans

Another year, another weak Weezer CD with a fantastic single; would this band release a Greatest Hits already, so I can trade in and consolidate everything but the Blue Album?

I love the Internet-inspired mayhem at the end of the video; including the Lightsaber sfx was a stroke of genius.

3. The Hold Steady - Sequestered in Memphis

"In barlight, she looked alright. In daylight, she looked desperate." What more do you need to know? Other that that leader singer Craig Finn is the unholy offspring of Bruce Springsteen and Andy Kindler...

4. Magnetic Fields - Too Drunk to Dream

The song that asserts: "sober, life is a prison/shitfaced, it is a blessing."

It's worth watching the above YouTube clip just to see the band's awkward banter before the song; I saw them in Minneapolis a few years ago, and was treated to one of the oddest shows ever.

Apparently, lead singer Stephin Merritt has a hearing disorder, which means that applause is actually banned at their shows; honestly, when anyone claps, he runs from the stage, hands over his ears. Talk about your tortured genius: "Nooooooo....applause makes my ears bleed!"

The two guys in the middle never say a damn thing, except sharing the occasional glance and rolling their eyes.

5. Los Campesinos! - Death to Los Campesinos!

I love a band that wishes themselves dead on their first single. As I mentioned in "best albums of the year," the ugly guy, cute girl dynamic in rock never ever gets old. Right, Sonny and Cher?

6. The Feeling - Turn it Up

The band whose aim is to be as great as Hall and Oates finally is with "Turn it Up." This tune first stuck me as "by the numbers," but eventually had me hitting the repeat button about 50 times in a row in the car, for two days straight. Out of my head, fowl temptress!

7. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Dig!!!, Lazarus, Dig!!!

A great song with a "joke title" delivered with classic preacher-man aplomb from the man himself.

8. Sia - Soon We'll Be Found

I caught Sia on Letterman a few weeks ago (see the above link) and was blown away by the performance. She brought along her own backdrop to the show, signed in ASL, and couldn't contain her unbridled delight at meeting Dave and Paul at the end of the song (NOT included in the above link - too bad). Charming.

I noticed that this song turned up on the last episode of the Hills (Uh, I saw it by accident. Yeah, that's it!), so she might even have a hit with this thing eventually. Let's hope.

9. Charlie Haden - Spiritual

I'm not usually one for "Jesus" songs, but this one works. Charlie's son, Josh, sings lead vocals and makes me feel guilty for everything I've ever done wrong in my life ever. Sorry!

10. The Raveonettes - Dead Sound

The Raveonettes played the West End Cultural Centre about a month before their latest great collection of songs came out. Tortured teenage love, speeding cars, and death are back - it's a great time to be a teenager!

Magazine round-up: the Weakerthans and Leonard Cohen

Some cool Winnipeg-related news in this month's magazines:

1. The new Blender with its new and not-improved minuscule size and typeface features the 33 best CDs of the year, the 144 best songs, and "the 1001 greatest songs to download right now."

Hidden away in the 1001 list, under "awesome songs by Canadians" is the Weakerthans, for "One Great City!" Sez Blender, "Winnipeg punk rockers turn a tourism slogan into a sad, beautiful acoustic gripe about the wave of gentrification sweeping their frost-bitten prairie bug."

And in last month's Q Magazine, the Weakerthans were on Billy Bragg's current playlist; he may have picked up their album right here in Winnipeg when he came through town last year.

Blender gets bonus marks for sandwiching the Weakerthans between Arcade Fire's "Rebellion (Lies)" and the Hidden Cameras' "Awoo." Blender loses bonus marks for saying that Lil Wayne has the best album and single of the year. Wah, wah, wah.

I'll always love the Weakerthans, not just for their music, but for their guitarist Stephen Carroll's generosity last year, when he came in to Red River College to talk to Creative Communications students about the band, then read through their publicity plans for the band's then-new CD "Reunion Tour." Great guy. Great band.

2. Leonard Cohen shows up on the cover of this month's Uncut Magazine. It's a great interview with him, his partner, band, and collaborators. Among the insights: Leonard eats healthy food, except when he sneaks away for an occasional Filet-O-Fish at McDonald's. Can you imagine the voice that sang "Suzanne" coming through the drive-thru speaker? "McFish, please." Awesome.

Most exciting is that at the end of the article, Cohen says he will end his current world tour with a swing through Western Canada. I saw his two shows in Winnipeg in 1993, and the first of the two was probably one of the best concerts I've ever seen. The show was hypnotic, at times hilarious, and he even sang "Hallelujah" (just rounding out that last "h").

Due to my cousin's inadvertent generosity (he was then president of Sony Canada), I had 14 free tickets to the second show, and I treated everyone I knew (and some who I didn't know) to a free Leonard Cohen show. It was only later that I found out that those tickets had been left for me accidentally, and no one from Sony could get into the show on the night of the concert. Sucks to be them! Har, har...

Let's just hope that karma doesn't boot me in the arse this time...

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Vic Mackey suffers a fate worse than death

According to the writers of the Shield, there's a fate worse than death or jail, and that's an ill-fitting suit and a cubicle.

This week (in Canada), the seventh and last season of the Shield came to its exhausting conclusion in a 90-minute Tour de Force that left little doubt that this series, not the Sopranos, is probably the best TV show ever (OK, maybe it's neck and neck with the Wire, but that's another blog).

After watching every episode of the Shield through seven seasons, the finale was in many ways expected and - in many more - shocking. So visceral is the show that after the credits rolled, just after 1:30 a.m. on a work night (thanks, Showcase), I felt so shaken that I couldn't sleep.

Entertainment Weekly sums up the feeling nicely in its review: "S#@! As in, Holy."


After Lem's death two seasons ago, we knew that the Strike Team would eventually implode. The big question: would the guys live, die, or go to jail? Who would've guessed all three?

Who dies?

The biggest shock in the finale came early, setting the scene for the quiet scenes later on: Shane, seeing no hope for himself or his family, takes his own life in the bathroom as his former colleagues burst through the door.

The sad reveal: off-camera, he's also taken the life of his wife and child, who are positioned on the bed clutching flowers and the toy police car that Shane bought him in an earlier scene. A real heartbreaker.

Who goes to jail?

That would be Ronnie, who survived two seasons longer than Lem and became a fan favorite late in the show's run, after saying virtually nothing over the first six seasons. Betrayed by Mackey, he's so shocked, he stammers and then completely loses it.

The last time we see Ronnie, he's scrapping with the officers trying to lock him in the cage as Vic walks by without so much as a glance in his direction.

Who lives?

Vic, but he's sacrificed everything. In the end, he's a schmuck in an ill-fitting suit in a jail cell all of his own: a drab and poorly lit cubicle with a PC(!) on which he's told to produce daily 10-page reports, single spaced! The horror!

After some excruciatingly long and quiet close-ups in two key scenes (one at the Barn, one in the cubicle), we can't be sure what Mackey is thinking. Does he feel sorry? Does he harbor regret? Would he do everything all over again? We expect to see a tear roll down his cheek, but it doesn't happen.

In the closing scene, Vic looks out the window as cop cars speed by with their sirens blaring. It looks like he might also take his own life...until he packs his gun into his belt, gets that old snarl on his face, and walks out of the building with renewed purpose.

It's too bad the show is over, because I'd love to see Vic get himself out of this one. Because if there's one thing I've learned from watching the show for seven seasons, it's this: Vic Mackey is much smarter than me.

Other stuff

- One of the show's disappointments is that it never resolved the storyline about Julien's sexuality versus his religious convictions. We see him checking out a couple of guys in the finale, but is he still married to a woman? And going to church?

- We know that Claudette will die soon, but it didn't happen on the finale. I would've bet otherwise.

- Dutch caught his boy serial killer, but I expected a little more cat-and-mouse shenanigans than what we got. The kid's final line is a good one, though. Why have all serial killers spent at least some time in southern California? "Because everyone who goes there wants to be famous."

- As well, the famous scene in season three, in which Dutch chokes his cat to better understand the mind of a serial killer, made me wonder if maybe Dutch did kill the boy's mother in order to frame the kid and get him off the street. Turned out there was no hint of that happening, but it would've been potent storyline to see Dutch go to jail while the Strike Team beat the rap.

- In a nice bit of continuity from a couple of other great cop series, actor/director Clark Johnson, appeared as the witness relocation officer for Vic's wife and kids. An actor on two other classic cop shows: Homicide: Life on the Street, and the last season of the Wire, he also played football with the Toronto Argonauts in the CFL.

- It's also pretty nifty how the surprise crime that happened in the first episode, Vic's murder of officer Terry Crowley (Reed Diamond, also from Homicide) permeated throughout the seven-season arc. In retrospect, it seemed like the crime had been forgotten, until Shane killed Lem, that is.

Dense with plot and more emotionally satisfying than the Sopranos' bait-and-switch finale, it'll be really sad to not have the Shield around anymore. Never has there been a TV show that kept the tension and stakes as high; that it happened in a genre that seemed played out over a decade ago makes it all the more remarkable.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Larsen's best albums/CDs of 2008

Would the last human being on Earth who still buys CDs please wave the flag? OK, it's me, and about a zillion guys in their 40s with grey hair, receding hairlines, and (not me!) pony tails.

And, with that out of the way, here are the finest CDs of 2008:

1. British Sea Power - Do You Like Rock Music?

The best album by Britain's Arcade Fire is the best CD of the year; big melodies, crashing symbols, screeching guitars, and two hit singles: Waving Flags and No Lucifer ("Easy! Easy!). Play it on your iPod at the Nonsuch exhibit at the Manitoba Museum to double your pleasure. And chew on some Doublemint Gum if you want, forget it.

2. Sparks - Exotic Creatures of the Deep

A guilty pleasure since 1979 or earlier, Sparks has somewhat abandoned its synth-pop/disco origins and made its third classic rock/opera/comedy album in a row, over 30 years after forming. Queen, Jellyfish, and the Darkness wish they were this good.

Check out "I've never been high." Key lyrics, "Maybe I'd try it/If I could buy it/But my connections aren't what they once were."

3. Mates of State - Re-Arrange Us

Happy round-songs have a way of dividing people: either you love them and want to sing along, or hate them and want to kick the skulls in of everyone around you singing along. "Row, row, row your boat gently down the...thwack."

The husband and wife team of Mates of State (don't hate me for saying this) are a two-piece version of what might happen if ABBA met the New Pornographers, and they have more round songs than any other band in history.

Who can turn the world on with a smile? Who can take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile? Mates of State! And the goofy video for "My Only Offer" makes me love them even more. Everybody! "Uh-uh-oh, it's my only offer..."

4. Hot Chip - Made in the Dark

I saw them in Minneapolis last year and they rocked my nerdy sci-fi brain. Are you ready for the floor, sci-fi nerds? And, yeah, and while we're at it: I have to admit that I watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind three times this weekend..."Who are you people!?"

5. Neil Diamond - Home Before Dark

I saw Neil at MTS Centre this year, and he was far too good for the geriatric patients and clinically dead people who managed to drag out their sorry carcasses to the show.

Kudos to Winnipeg's unknown "solitary man" himself, who excitedly danced by himself at the front of the arena for the duration of the show, much to the chagrin of the overly-rabid security guards who teleported in from Footloose: "No fun allowed!"

Diamond is the Jewish Elvis, and if you don't believe it, just take one more bite of the apple.

6. Robyn

At once daring you to "rumble in my jungle," and promising that "you can't handle me," this was the best Madonna album that Madonna never recorded. Apparently, Madonna felt the same, inviting Robyn to open for her on her "anorexic, breakup, plastic surgery, A-Rod" tour this year.

Robyn performed Cobrastyle on Letterman and - call me old fashioned - but I love to see a bear in a suit. Aww, Dave, you never get old.

7. TV on the Radio - Dear Science

What is this? Rap? Alternative? Soul? Rock? Pop? Or some completely new hybrid we have to call "good?" This album is even better than its much-heralded predecessor, and I'll probably like it even more about six months from now.

8. Ben Folds - Way to Normal

The sombre pop of Songs For Silverman behind him, Folds returned to form with a Tour de Force of ironic, (some would say offensive), pop songs for the dumped. Love the woman singing along on the YouTube link..."the b**** went nuts - she stabbed my basketball!"

9. Los Campesinos! - Hold on Now, Youngster

Releasing two albums in its first year, the delightful Los Campesinos! wished themselves dead on their very first single. Hey, the classic "cute girl, ugly guy" rock & roll archetype still works. Long live Shane MacGowan and Sinéad O'Connor!

10. Lindsey Buckingham - Gift of Screws

Buckingham releases great CD after great CD, year after year. A master of songwriting, singing, playing, and production, there's nothing not to like about this guy. Is it just me, or does "Did you miss me" sound a lot like "check your resumé?" Insert the Stevie Nicks joke of your choice here. Good audience banter, to boot.

Coming soon: the best songs of 2008.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Props to my media peeps

The Globe & Mail ran my letter in today's paper (see yesterday's post). Thanks, Globe, it's always nice to get a letter run in a newspaper that charges around $40 per agate line for an ad. Heck, that's an extra $80 in my pocket, which I will use to buy Tim Hortons coffees, lotto tickets, and magazine subscriptions through Publishers Clearing House.

It's always surprising to see how one little letter to the editor can get such a big response, and heartening to know how many people there are who understand that Winnipeg being called "too cold, boring, and far away" in a national newspaper - after a mere 208 Canadians take part in a focus group - is whack.

Terry MacLeod was nice enough to read my letter on CBC Radio One. I especially liked when co-host Marcy Markusa applauded and said, "Hurray for Kenton Larsen!" Finally, something in the media that I can get behind! Ha, ha.

More poetic justice came in today's Globe, which featured a story about Manitoba writer Miriam Toews' fourth novel, the Flying Troutmans, taking the first-place, $25,000 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, even though her book wasn't shortlisted for the Giller Prize or the Governor-General's award for fiction.

According to the 208 Winnipeggers I surveyed, it's a big swipe at novelists in Toronto, who are too boring, cold, and far away to win the prize. Wah, wah, wah.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Dear Globe & Mail: puh-lease...

A copy of the letter I sent to the Globe & Mail today:

Dear editor,

According to today's Globe & Mail, a survey of 208 Canadians says that Winnipeg is "too cold, boring, and far away" for them to come to see the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights in person.

It's worth pointing out that I get the Monday Globe with the Sunday New York Times - the very same little newspaper that listed Manitoba as one of the top 31 places to visit this summer.

It's too bad that those 208 Canadians are too cold and boring to get off of their butts to come to see it.

Kenton Larsen

Saturday, November 15, 2008

RIP Pat Riordan

Winnipeg lost its King of Comedy on Thursday, when Pat Riordan, 69, died of stomach cancer.

In the above photo, he's second from the left in the back row.

Pat was a singer with the band, the Balladeers, performing at local lounges Champs and Pierre's, and he hosted the comedy show at the Viscount Gort Hotel and the Winnipeg Press Club for some 20 years.

When we (Jason Beck, Trevor Boris, Charlie Oynske, and I) started our stand-up show at the Press Club just over 10 years ago, Pat couldn't have been more gracious. He was under no obligation to link himself to a bunch of crappy start-up comics, which we certainly were at the time, but he came out of retirement to host our show a number of times, including one at the British pub in Gimli, Manitoba, which I remember fondly for getting paid in pints of Guinness. Afterward, we hung out on Pat's boat, the Jennie May, which was his favorite place to be.

Onstage, Pat reminded me of a Winnipeg version of Johnny Carson: he always wore a suit jacket, had a relaxed demeanor, and cracked up most when a joke bombed. When said he was going to stop doing our show, we asked him to stick around, and he said, "You guys are great; you don't need me anymore." That was maybe the first professional vote of confidence for any of us.

Riordan's service will take place Thursday at 2 p.m. at the Cropo on 1442 Main Street. RIP Pat!

I kissed two girls, and the first one was better

Something that's stuck in my craw for the past year or so: now that Katy Perry's song, "I Kissed a Girl" has been played so many times that it's officially an element on the periodic table, it seems that everyone has forgotten about Jill Sobule's song of the same name from 1995.

Have a look (and - this is exciting - a pre-hit-in-the-face-with-a-goose Fabio co-stars in the video):

Sobule's take on Perry's song, courtesy of her website,

"The first thing I did was to download it to see if it sampled or resembled mine -- actually, I just listened to the free 15 seconds that iTunes provides... Well, it didn't sound at all like mine, and and the lyrics were more, say, "Girls Gone Wild" than what I was trying to do. But, I will not judge it public.

"And, I must say, it is catchy. It's just a bit annoying. You think she would have picked a different title, for goodness sake. However, my IKAG (I am using the acronym now) is admittedly over 10 years old and most of her young fans probably have never heard my version.

"When my IKAG came out, it was a different time: before Ellen, before The L word, and before Lindsay Lohan had a girlfriend. It was semi-bold, but maybe not the smartest career choice for a first single. But I was proud to be one of those that broke the barrier. Now it's like ...whatever."

I'm tempted to say that Perry stole Sobule's song, but I'll withhold that judgment until such time Perry releases a song called, "Supermodel." Don't do it, Katy!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Manitoba, meet Manitoba

Of the zillion or so CDs that I have littered around my house, car, workplace, and feet, the ones that are nearest and dearest to my heart are the ones that land firmly in the category of "punk rock."

As former Clash-city rocker Mick Jones once sang with Big Audio Dynamite, "I didn't like jazz, I didn't like funk - I turned out a punk!" Same here, except I like jazz and funk too.

Lately, I've been getting into proto-punk band the Dictators, who somehow escaped my attention "back in the day."

I caught the reformed Dictators about six years ago at Little Steven's Underground Garage Festival in New York, and they won me over with their over-the-top bravado in songs like "Who Will Save Rock and Roll?" and lyrics like, "I wish Sgt. Pepper never taught the band to play."

Their first and best album is 1975's The Dictators Go Girl Crazy!, which is notable for lots of things, including its great cover of Sonny and Cher's "I Got You, Babe," the hilarious cover photo, and "its blueprint for bad taste, humor, and defiance (Village Voice)."

What was fast and loud in 1975 is lo-fi and downright charming today; I've had the thing playing in my car for the past two weeks, and it gets better with each listen.

The band's main concern is all things that male teenagers love: cars, girls, burgers, TV, surfing, the weekend, and more dumb jokes than you can shake a stick at. Example: in "the Next Big Thing:" "I knocked 'em dead in Dallas, I didn't pay my dues - they didn't know we were Jews."

The band is also home of our province's self-appointed spiritual leader, Handsome Dick Manitoba. As owner of Manitoba's bar in New York's East Village (see above photo), he's probably doomed to being visited by vacationing Winnipeggers until his dying day (much like New York's McNally Robinson bookstore, located just a hop, skip, and a jump away from the bar).

So attached is Handsome Dick to the name "Manitoba," he threatened to sue the artist formerly known as "Manitoba" for using it, even though Handsome Dick has never recorded anything under that moniker (his real name is the not-very-punk-sounding Richard Blum). Saying he couldn't afford the lawsuit, the other Manitoba changed his name to Caribou, which is sufficiently Canadian-sounding enough to not have caused much, if any, brand confusion among his fans.

It's worth noting that at the time of The Dictators Go Girl Crazy!, Handsome Dick was listed only as "Secret Weapon" on the album sleeve, and apparently considered by the rest of the band as being little more than their mascot. By their third album, he was the band's lead vocalist: an inspirational and uplifting story for any Manitoban.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Secret Machines play to hicks in the sticks

Yesterday I selected a Pink Floyd album as the best Remembrance Day CD of all time; yesterday evening, I went to see a band sometimes mentioned as Floyd's heir apparent: the Secret Machines, who played the Pyramid to a crowd of, well, hillbillies (not the kind who loot Neiman Marcus either).

More about the hillbillies in a sec.

I first heard of the Secret Machines in Q Magazine, which selected the band's 2004 CD Now Here is Nowhere as one of the year's best. I bought it, and agreed with the assessment: "Nowhere Again" (see the above YouTube link) is one of my favorite songs of all time, and "Sad and Lonely" is required listening whenever I feel sad and lonely, which is virtually all the time, thanks to my winning personality and hilarious jokes. har, har...

The band's follow-up album, Ten Silver Drops, was even better. It took the sentiment of "Sad and Lonely" and stretched it out over eight songs. It's one of the best break-up CDs of all time, though Frank Sinatra's Wee Small Hours will always be the very best, especially if you're drunk or hungover to boot.

"Alone, Jealous, and Stoned," "All at Once (It's Not Important)," and "Lightning Blue Eyes" take all of that pent up sadness and turn it into a Black Celebration, and much more effectively than My Chemical Romance's Black Parade, which tried to do the same thing in a similar style.

So, it was with much enthusiasm that I went to the Pyramid Cabaret last night. The perennial problem with the Pyramid, of course, is that if the ticket says, "Doors open at 8," it really means, "You'll be lucky to see your headliner by midnight," which again was the case last night. C'mon guys: people in this town work for a living.

Arriving at the venue, we were greeted by a dozen cop cars. The cops had apparently chased a half-naked man into the venue. Usually that means "the lower half" is the naked part of the man, so we waited outside until he had been apprehended, repanted, and brought to the Remand Centre, where he was undoubtedly depanted again.

The opening band were crappy-sounding, singing, and playing - though I'm sure they're really nice guys - from Winnipeg. They were followed by Small Sins, a damn good band from Toronto, which entertained with some of the catchiest Canadian synth-pop this side of Men Without Hats.

And that's when the drunk hillbillies started making out two feet away from me. This was no tame make-out session: it had the power to gross out people in other postal codes. Clothes were pulled out of pants, tongues were thrust into mouths, and it all culminated with the happy couple falling onto the floor in a drunken stupor - twice!

By the time the Secret Machines came out, after midnight, the crowd had dwindled to about 30 people, including the happy couple, who continued their merry ways in front of the stage, much to the chagrin of the band, the audience, and society at large.

I'll give the band credit, though. It's a truism in entertainment that you're not supposed to blame the crowd that's there for the people who didn't show up. I know from performing stand-up that it's easier said than done. "Hey, where is everyone? Did you all come in the same car? Thanks for the true smattering of applause, etc."

Playing in front of a lame-ass, tiny crowd of hillbillies, though, Secret Machines impressed. The stage was nicely tricked out with a trigonometry-defying backdrop, the lights were stellar, and the band rocked it through a selection of their best songs over the better part of an hour and a half.

The between-song banter was minimal, but remarkably friendly and gracious, especially given the circumstances. Had I been in the band's place, I probably would've said something like, "Screw you, hillbillies!" before running out to the van and vowing never to return to Winnipeg, the Heart of the Continent.

We'll likely never see the Secret Machines play Winnipeg again, which is a crying shame. On behalf of the low turnout, the hillbillies, the lovers, the dreamers, and me, I'd like to thank Secret Machines for playing my hometown and making at least one schoolboy's dreams come true. You guys rule.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The best Remembrance Day album of all time?

Pink Floyd - The Final Cut (1983)

Often slammed as being "outtakes from the Wall," "a Roger Waters solo album," or "the album that finally broke up Pink Floyd," the Final Cut is my favorite Pink Floyd album, and perhaps the most thought-provoking CD you can listen to on Remembrance/Veterans Day.

The first sign that Pink Floyd's the Final Cut is, as Woody Allen once said, "total heaviosity" is its subtitle: "A Requiem for the Post War Dream."

Says Wikipedia: "Waters' lyrics explore what he regards as the betrayal of the British servicemen, such as his own father, who sacrificed their lives in World War II in the hope that victory would allow successor generations to build a better, more humane society based on progressive, humanist values, where political leaders would heed the lessons of the past and no longer be so readily prepared to resort to war as a means of settling disputes..."

In just 45 minutes, Waters tackles the Falklands War, Reagan and Thatcher conservatism ("Oh, Maggie, what have we done?"), and the fate of servicemen after the wars ("You can hide, hide, hide behind paranoid eyes"). And it all culminates with the promise of a nuclear war ("Could be the human race is run").

Dark, yes, but the music, mostly acoustic, is some of the most beautiful that Pink Floyd ever committed to vinyl (or disc). Among them: "The Gunner's Dream," "Paranoid Eyes," "Southampton Dock," and the title track, a musical nod to the Wall's "Comfortably Numb," which might be the only outward Pink Floyd love song in their entire catalog:

"And if I show you my dark side,
Will you still hold me tonight?
And if I open my heart to you, and show you my weak side
What would you do?"

When I saw Waters play MTS Centre last year - one of the best live shows I've seen - I was happy that he found room in his setlist for "Fletcher Memorial Home" (his tribute to "overgrown infants" Reagan and Thatcher) and "Southampton Dock." I would've done just about anything to hear that great piano segue leading into "The Final Cut." Maybe next time.

For those who prefer their Pink Floyd on the heavy side, there's "the Hero's Return," in which David Gilmour's raging guitar mimics a fighter jet crossing the sky, and "Not Now John" a rare Pink Floyd rave-up sung by Gilmour with supporting vocals by Waters and unnamed female background singers; hated by many, loved by me, it was the album's only single.

Recent pressings of the Final Cut include "When the Tigers Broke Free," which Pink Floyd recorded for the film version of the Wall. While I do miss the ticking clock at the end of "One of the Few" being interrupted by the gut punch at the beginning of "The Hero's Return," "Tigers" is a great bonus, a moving song about a soldier's sacrifice and the son he left behind:

"It was dark all around
There was frost on the ground
When the tigers broke free
And no one survived from the Royal Fusiliers Company C
They were all left behind
Most of them dead, the rest of them dying
And that's how the high command took my daddy from me"

Coming out the same year (and almost the same time) as U2's War, the two CDs make great companion pieces, Pink Floyd's being the introspective counterpoint to U2's more bombastic effort. You could do worse than to play them in a row on Remembrance Day.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Play baseball with me, and you'll be famous too

So, I was going through an old photo album yesterday, so I could Photoshop out the faces of my exes - but seriously - and I came across this picture from my days working on Conan O'Brien; this picture was a match-up in Central Park between baseball teams Conan and Letterman. Conan showed up, Letterman didn't show up.

And for the record: despite buying a new baseball glove and an official Conan hat and shirt, I never did get so much as to first base with the team (or even to left field, for that matter).

Instead, I got to sit on the bench with the very athletic Andy Richter, who you can see front and centre of the photo; and, as it turns out, with Sarah Silverman (to the immediate right on the picture).

Silverman had also brought her baseball glove to the game, and also wasn't allowed to play. Honestly: when will the uptight, protestant, middle-class, white Canadian boy and the Jewish American princess finally get their moment in the sun?

I recall that after the game, I shared a cab with Silverman, only having a very vague idea that she was even on Saturday Night Live as (kiss of death) a "featured player;" in fact, Ellen Cleghorne, who was also on SNL at the time, showed up at the game with her team of Doberman dogs, and got waaaaay more notoriety.

So, the point is: having big Dobermans might get you a minute of glory, but sitting on the bench and sharing a cab with Kenton Larsen will make you famous.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Hey, banks are broke, but they're also cool!

Is it any wonder that all of the Wall Street investment firms are going broke? They're spending all of their money on cool billboards like this one (those are dummies, not real workers: just like the brokers on Wall Street! Am I right, people?).

Another nifty out-of-home treatment that has not escaped the attention of one Niko Bellic...

No, there aren't any interesting outdoor ad treatments in Winnipeg

Here's a promotional "blimp" for the relatively new FOX TV show "Fringe," which I saw being led through the crowd at the Major League Baseball All-Star Parade in New York last summer.

This is a great example of a cheap and effective outdoor treatment; this wouldn't have cost very much, and is a million times more noticeable than the standard outdoor poster (as our friend in the foreground is proving).

All you need:

1. a product you'd like to sell or promote
2. a balloon
3. paint
4. string
5. a guy in a pink shirt and tie to lead it around.


No, there aren't any MLCC guidelines in New York

With Winnipeg having among the most confusing and poorly enforced bar and alcohol regulations in North America, and me trying to do my best to teach 'em to first-year Creative Communications students last week, here's a little reminder that Manitoba's guidelines do not extend to New York: a picture I recently took of the famous Continental bar in the East Village.

Check out the sign under the marquee: yep, that's five shots of anything for $10. Here's to hoping the woman on the ladder isn't changing "anything" to "nothing."

By the way, it's true that the MLCC regulations allow for advertising "Happy Hour," while the CRTC regulations do not allow it. I need a drink.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Cosby KOs Dylan in battle of the living legends

Last weekend, two living legends played Winnipeg: Bill Cosby and Bob Dylan.

Who was better? Would you believe me if I told you that the answer rhymes with schmill schmosby?

This may be surprising, because in recent years, Dylan's mystique has only grown: releasing three awesome CDs in a row this late in the game after such a long career of peaks and troughs is probably unprecedented.

And those first 10 albums or so are one of the longest and most creative winning-streaks in musical history. As it says in the Rolling Stone Record Guide: "Look upon his works, ye mighty, and despair."

Having seen Dylan before - about 10 years ago and in the intimate confines of the Centennial Concert Hall - I knew pretty much what to expect, and that's what I got: he cranked out some hits, misses, and songs from his last (and great) album of new material, Modern Times.

Last time I saw Dylan, he performed with SNL guitarist G.E. Smith, who seemed responsible for absolutely everything that happened onstage, including physically propping up Dylan from time to time. No kidding: Dylan's feet never moved once during the show, but his upper body was all over the stage.

At the end of the show, one of my relatives made a statement that haunts her to this very day: "He didn't play Blowin' in the Wind properly." As anyone familiar with Dylan knows, beggars can't be choosers. You're lucky to even get Blowin' in the Wind at a Dylan show; and who's to say that he's not playing it properly? After all, the guy did write the song.

Back then, he even managed some between-song banter. He said, "You're a good crowd," and "It's a pleasure to be playing in Neil Young's hometown. It really is." The guy was a geyser of conversation that night - I geyser, I say!

So, it was in the spirit of not expecting too much that I attended Dylan's concert at MTS Centre. There were improvements over the last time I saw him: a spotlight on the man's face, his voice higher in the mix, the occasional 'lil dance that he'd do when he emerged from behind his keyboard, a band dressed in natty attire, and a set list that opened with Rainy Day Women #12 & 35, and the Times They Are A-Changin'.

The twist was that Dylan's band played all of the songs, including the classics, as though they were Doo-wop hits of the fifties; nothing wrong with that, but it's a bit off-putting to hear Like A Rolling Stone played by way of Dion and the Belmonts.

This time, Dylan said nothing to the crowd, and his band remained mostly anonymous and workmanlike throughout the night. Nothing terrible happened, but nothing too notable either. And, it's worth pointing out, that I've never seen more people leaving their seats on the floor to buy beer throughout a show in my life. Either Dylan wasn't connecting, no one has an attention span anymore, or both.

Bill Cosby is a very funny fellow - right

And Cosby? Many of his comedy albums are now out of print; even those in print have aged pretty badly. By today's standards, it's shocking to listen to his 1968 breakthrough album "To Russell, my brother whom I slept with;" not because it's not "funny" by today's standards, but because the comedy is so gentle, and Cosby goes so long without so much as getting a giggle.

Listening to 1963's "Bill Cosby is a Very Funny Fellow - Right" recently, I was overcome with that I-guess-you-had-to-be-there feeling, which is one of the last things you want people to think when they see or hear a recording of your stand-up.

And then there's the annual event in which I bring up the name Bill Cosby in comedy writing class, and I get at least one student who says, "Isn't that the guy who used to sell JELL-O and Coke and star on TV as that doctor who was married to that lawyer, but never seemed to work, and said "Theo" a lot?" I'm paraphrasing.

So, it was to my utter surprise that Cosby came out, far and away, as a better showman than the infamous Bob Dylan.

Sauntering out onto the stage without an introduction, Cosby sat down, blew his nose (he was setting up a later joke), and began talking.

The crowd was instantly mesmerized. Having performed stand-up a zillion times, and knowing how frigging hard it can be to get and hold an audience's attention, I couldn't help but stare at the faces of the folks sitting around me, back to Cosby, back to the folks, and wonder, "What the hell is this guy's secret?"

Live, Cosby starts out remarkably slow and deliberate. He tells a story about a girl's coming of age, and how all the women around her help her out when she "becomes a woman" as compared to the lack of respect a guy gets when he "becomes a man." Funny and knowing stuff.

Perhaps Cosby's best bit of the night is a story about how, as a young man, he hears his grandfather use the expression "out of wedlock," and wonders what it means. He goes home and asks his mother, who instantly assumes that he's gotten a girl pregnant. She orders him to his room, and sends his father up to interrogate him.

Cosby's dad: Here's what's going to happen: we're going to look after the baby, OK?

Cosby: Uh, OK?

Cosby's dad: Where's the baby?

Cosby: What baby?

As any good comedian does with his or her material, Cosby wrung out every last nuance of the scenario's comic possibilities.

At this point, Cosby asked the audience, "What time is it?" He'd already done over an hour. Coming from most performers, this would mean that the show was almost at an end. After asking, Cosby did another full hour, ending with his classic dentist bit.

As Jerry Seinfeld points out in the documentary Comedian, doing comedy for this long is a huge, physical effort. And Cosby went over two hours on a night when he did two shows in a row. Mind-blowing, especially for a 70-year-old man. Hell, I do 15 minutes of stand-up, and I'm ready for a lie down.

As Cosby's dentist bit picked up steam, I saw tears of laughter running down the faces of the grown men and women around me. Here, the setups and punches came quicker, until Cosby said good night, walked off the stage to a standing ovation, and didn't return for an encore.

Leaving Dylan, I felt satisfied that I'd seen a living legend. Leaving Cosby, I felt satisfied that I'd seen one of the greatest comics of all time in his prime.

Oh, the Times They Are A-Changin'.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Help me, Obi-Wan Blitzer, you're my only hope

I met CNN's own Wolf Blitzer at the Winnipeg Press Club a few years ago.

He was nice enough to agree to a last-minute meeting with our students at Red River College's Creative Communications program; he spoke for half an hour or so and very patiently answered everyone's questions. Yay, Wolf.

Of course, all I can remember from the event was that he said he likes it in Winnipeg, he smells better than you'd think, and he has a very expensive haircut, which you don't really get to appreciate unless you see the guy in person...

Until now!

Last night, CNN unveiled its new "hologram" technology, which - before our very eyes - instantly revealed the possible future of TV, videogames, elections, and (probably) pornography.

Check it out:

Please tell me that the blue glow around the hologram is a tribute to Carrie Fisher in Star Wars.

So, to summarize, the big stories of last night, as I rank them:

1. The first African American president elected in U.S. history;

2. We may be able to finally appreciate Wolf Blitzer's expensive haircut in the privacy of our own homes;

3. NBC shows a guy holding a sign saying "Bush, you're fired" for a very long time.

Has life just got a whole lot better or what?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Second helping of comedy, anyone?

Our second comedy night was a huge success: even more people in the crowd and a butt-kicking headlining performance from one Dan Verville.

Special thanks to our genial and well-dress host, Jayme Vandenberg.

According to our "panel of experts," our top comics this time around were:

1. Kate Schellenberg
2. Sam Karney
3. Mike Ambrose
4. Lena Franford
5. Gaetan Harris

And, again, everyone else kicked butt as well. Great job one and all!

Keep your eyes peeled for our next big comedy show in January...

Friday, October 24, 2008

Comedy Night #1: best ever!

The first of two Red River College comedy nights at the King's Head went off without a hitch. Last Monday's show was truly one of the best nights of comedy I've seen; and that's including Just For Laughs tours.

The main difference is that Just For Laughs is all about ego, Red River College comedy nights are all about excitement and - ultimately - confidence building.

My most pronounced memory of the night is seeing the crowd at the bar surging with laughter (a comedy mosh pit?) during Daniel Falloon's set. Great stuff.

The results are in, and our top five comics are:

1. Dave Shorr - Great tattoo joke!
2. Jason Krahn - Wagon Wheels!
3. Daniel Falloon - He doesn't look like most people!
4. Alex Rachey - Dad hates mom!
5. Kim Kaschor - Whiney parents at breakfast time!

Nobody even remotely bombed, so all of our performers should feel pretty great about how the night went. Next Monday's group has their work cut out for them; come out to cheer them on, Monday, Nov. 27, the King's Head, $5, doors at 7, show at 8.

And special thanks to headliner Cara Lytwyn and host Crystal Klippenstein - great work!

If anyone has pictures from the first comedy night, e-mail them to me, and I'll post 'em.

Thanks for the memories...

Saturday, October 18, 2008

"A Christmas Story" was a documentary? Who knew?

I ran across this photo today, which raises some questions:

1. If pointy hoods and pom-poms were all the rage in December of 1972, then why were my sister and I the only kids with snowsuits and head scarves?

2. Is the girl in the brownish jacket about to tell me that the Tin Man is her favorite character in the Wizard of Oz?

3. Is the mysterious adult standing behind the kids the same blurry figure we saw on the grassy knoll?

4. Why did anyone ever settle in Winnipeg if this was the gear they knew they needed to survive?

5. Is making kids stand in the cold to see a fictional character child abuse?

Happy Halloween, everybody. Ho, ho, ho...

Friday, October 17, 2008

For anyone under 30, the paper is -30-

If there was any doubt about the fragility of the newspaper business, look no further than the strike by Winnipeg Free Press workers, now in its - aw, forget it - has anyone under 30 even noticed?

Back in 1977, I was a carrier for the Winnipeg Tribune; I'm fairly confident that it was 1977, because I got the route so that I could collect Star Wars figures, which had just come out that year. As far as I was concerned, the only way I could ever drive a landspeeder on Tatooine was to first deliver papers out of a wagon in Winnipeg.

It was a hard work: it was my job to get the paper delivered in rain, sunshine, sleet, and snow sometime every night between...oh, 6 and 10 p.m., if I didn't have anything better to do. OK, it wasn't hard work, but it was "work" at a time when other kids were often described as "drug-crazed" and acted as though shoplifting Mojos from 7-Eleven was a way of life.

And - no kidding - for some people along the route, it was like Christmas when they got their paper. It was common to see folks waiting in their front door for the paper to be delivered, having waited patiently all day and most of the evening for YESTERDAY'S news. Quaint, eh?

Despite being a Tribune delivery boy, the Free Press was the paper I loved to read. To me, movie reviewers Paul McKie and Leonard Klady were as great, if not better than, Siskel and Ebert. Gordon Sinclair was on par with 60 Minutes. The movie and concert listings were the only way to know what was up on the weekend. And anyone lucky enough to actually be covered in the paper was a celebrity for the ages.

That was before the dark times. Before the Empire.

Last night, Neil Young played MTS Centre. The concert was great - much better than the last time he did a solo show here - and he briefly talked about how his father, Scott Young, once worked for the Winnipeg Free Press. Young said that he still has a photo of his dad in a press room, drinking a bottle of Coke.

"If no one's going to write about this show," said Young, "I guess I'll just have to write my own review."

And that pretty much sums up why - yipes - we don't need the newspaper anymore. The Internet proves that there are limitless numbers of people who will be reporters for free. A question I ask my students every year when we talk about newspapers and print journalism: "Do you need to wear a shirt and tie and have a notebook to still be considered a journalist?" Increasingly, the answer is "no."

1. The only thing that keeps newspapers alive is ad revenue.

According to a friend who works at the Free Press, ad revenue was down a whopping $500,000 in September from the previous year. It is often said that Free Press reporters are the highest-paid reporters in Canada. How can a newspaper continue to pay out more money than what it takes in?

2. Why do we need a newspaper when we have eBay, Pollstar, and Craigslist?

3. The idea that the newspaper funnels information to "everyone" is dead. We all want to be our own content supervisors now.

4. And how, exactly, does reading about a plane crash in the paper on a Tuesday help me when I read about it online on the previous Saturday?

I fear that we're getting closer and closer to the last-season, last-scene of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Would the last reporter out of the building please turn out the lights? -30-

Further viewing

As I mentioned in a previous blog, the state of the newspaper business is nicely (and depressingly) summarized in a documentary on the DVD set of the last season of the Wire, and on a really great episode of Frontline, called "What's happening to the news?"

Sunday, September 14, 2008

In praise of Gervais (and Philips DVD players)

I saw Ricky Gervais on Letterman last Friday, and he was bearing good news: at long last, one of his stand-up specials will be broadcast in America on HBO (and available on DVD afterward). I believe it's scheduled for Nov. 15, though there's no title and the date looks like it's tentative.

I was at one of the three tapings at the WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden last July, from which the special will be assembled (I took the blurry photo, above, at the taping).

I made the trip to New York primarily to see Gervais, who I'm convinced - after the Office, Extras, and the great British-only stand-up DVDs: Animals, Politics, and (my favorite) Fame - is the best comic actor and stand-up working today.

My best guess as to why his stand-up DVDs aren't available in North America is some distributor's misguided idea that North Americans won't get the jokes, thanks to references to Syd Little, Dawn French, Chris Tarrant, and the Chuckle Brothers. Who? Who cares? Whether you get the references or not, this stuff is frigging hilarious.

If you live in North America, do not be deterred: simply pick up a $40 all-region DVD player from Wal-Mart (I recommend the Philips one that says, "Plays all DVDs" on the box), order the three-DVD set from (along with "Zidane," a great film that will never be available here either), and prepare to laugh until you cry. At Gervais, not Zidane.

The order in which to watch these is the order in which they were released: Animals, Politics, and Fame. Animals is funny, Politics is funnier, and Fame is one of the best comedy DVDs I've seen. It truly rivals some of the best, Chris Rock's "Black and Blacker" included.

**Spoiler warning**

Highlights include Gervais' take (he calls it "a lecture") on:

- The Richard Gere urban legend, featuring a great act-out of Gere stroking a "nervous" hamster;

- A British anti-rape ad campaign ("What kind of society has to remind people not to rape?");

- His religion teacher, who says that "all the laws of the land are included in the Bible" (Gervais asks: "video piracy?");

- How a conversation between the first man with HIV and the monkey who gave it to him might've played out (given the choice between admitting to having sex with a monkey or eating a monkey, both man and monkey agree: "I ate 'em.").

Arguably, the best bit is Gervais' recounting of a taping of X-Factor, where he witnesses Sharon Osbourne repeatedly insult and humiliate TV presenter Chris Tarrant.

The NY show is devoid of these references and "North Americanized" to a certain extent. Still, I hope that it's a success; if it is, perhaps a larger tour of the continental U.S. and Canada will be in the cards. Here's to hoping.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Of the Rock Junket Tour and Astroland

If you're going to NY, and have even a passing interest in music, you've gotta do Bobby Pinn's Rock Junket tour.

We took Bobby's East Village Rock, Punk, and Glam tour, which includes the Joe Strummer "The Future is Unwritten" mural, Charlie Parker's home, Joey Ramone's former apartment, Madonna's former apartment, and the former sites of CBGBs and the Filmore East.

As a Canadian from Winnipeg, it was a special delight to see the Dictators Handsome Dick Manitoba's bar in the East Village (called "Manitoba's," of course).

Bobby knows his music and loves to talk; he reminds you of the punk older brother who always has more records and knows more about them than you. His knowledge and taste are impeccable, and he even made me believe that I should give Iggy Pop's Avenue B album another listen. I did, and it still sucks.

At the end of the tour, Bobby gives you a brochure with "things to do" recommendations, including what turned out to be two, huge highlights: having an egg cream from the Gem Spa (on Second Avenue at St. Mark's Place) and riding the Cyclone at Coney Island.

RIP Astroland

What's the funnest way to lose your wallet ever? The Cyclone at Coney Island, of course: (YouTube). The Cyclone is a trip in and of itself; from the creaky ascent on the wooden(!) boards to the neck-snapping shock of the first drop - has there ever been a roller coaster that's scarier?

It makes me all the sadder to find out today that Astroland - the famous roller coaster's home - closed forever yesterday. Apparently, it's a victim of more of that gentrification that New Yorkers (and everyone except landlords and developers) can't stand. Goodbye Astroland, hello condos. Whatta huge drag.

Supposedly, the Cyclone will keep operating, but I can't imagine it being the same without Astroland - one of the few truly magical places in New York that was open to everyone - young, old, rich, and poor. As the NY Times points out in the link above:

"Part of what made Astroland unique was its accessibility, said Charles Denson, a Coney Island historian and author of the book “Coney Island Lost and Found.” Rather than being an expensive, glossy and distant amusement park, Astroland was a place that was reachable by subway, a place where a visitor could shoot a water gun at a clown’s mouth and win a prize, or venture on kitschy rides with names like Dante’s Inferno and Break Dance that, while arguably seedy, were still loads of fun.

“It wasn’t Disneyland , but thank God for that,” said Mr. Denson. “It’s open to people of small means, and it always has been.”

RIP, Astroland. Long live the Cyclone!

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Junk you hate yourself for loving

I’m cuckoo for Coco Puffs, always after those Lucky Charms, and I agree with the silly rabbit: Trix most definitely aren’t for kids.

Is it wrong to love something so shamelessly targeted at kids, so sugarcoated and unhealthy, so downright evil? Like Mikey, the Life cereal kid, when it comes to cereal, I’ll eat damn well anything. Or did Mikey hate cereal? Whatever – he died mixing Pop Rocks with Coke.

My passion for cereal began long before Seinfeld and his cereal-filled infomercial, er, sitcom. One of my earliest memories is of sitting in my family’s kitchen and sharing a bowl of Dinky Donuts with my imaginary manservant, Peter. Oh, how we used to laugh at each other’s jokes, Peter and I!

In case you weren't around for the big cereal revolution of the mid-1980s, the disturbingly named Dinky Donuts were discovered by scientists searching for a substance tougher and more durable than concrete. They had a lucky accident when a government “volunteer” said the substance, though it busted all of his teeth, tasted kind of “donutty.”

So, when you ate Dinky Donuts, it didn’t matter if you had a construction crew drilling in one ear and Ethel Merman singing in the other – the only thing you could hear was: CRUNCH, CRUNCH, CRUNCH, CRUNCH, CRUNCH.

With the great donutty taste, however, came great side effects; weeks after eating Dinky Donuts, you'd be sitting in school, mowing the lawn, talking with your imaginary manservant Peter – anything – when, without warning, you’d have a Dinky Donuts flashback: CRUNCH, CRUNCH, CRUNCH, CRUNCH, CRUNCH.

That may be the reason the cereal was eventually discontinued; it couldn’t have been for “misleading advertising:” the official spokesman for Dinky Donuts was “Dinky” the middle-aged, overweight astronaut who searched the galaxy for donuts in a donut-shaped spaceship. “Hey kids. Eat this cereal and one day you could be just like this guy!”

Now that I’m older and more concerned about nutrition, I’ve moved on to Cookie Crisp, which is a more evil junk cereal than most, given that I have to travel into George W. Bush’s America to buy it. Hey, George, don’t take my Cookie Crisp purchase as a sign that I support your foreign policy, OK? OK!

Still, it almost seemed worth it when my 16-year-old nieces from Saskatchewan recently visited. I should point out that a relative in Saskatchewan once told me that you can’t eat Coco Puffs in Regina, because if the milk turns brown, they’ll burn you for witchcraft.

I don’t know if that’s true, but so delighted were my nieces at the very possibility of filling a bowl with chocolate-chip cookies, pouring milk on them, and calling it “cereal,” two days later my secret Cookie Crisp stash was no more.

In the great Frontline documentary, The Persuaders, Kevin Roberts says that creating loyalty beyond reason should be the goal of any marketing manager, because that means you can appeal to your heavy-product users forever. Or is that "heavy product-users?"

Important to this pursuit, he says, is maintaining a veneer of “mystery” in the product. Just like your girlfriend dumps you once she knows everything about you, a product must strive to be constantly innovative, entertaining, and stimulating, or suffer the same fate.

As an example of a product full of mystery, Roberts cites (surprise) Cheerios:

“Cheerios is full of mystery. You don’t think that people just eat them in a bowl, do you? Most kids play with them, make up stories about them, and imagine them.”

This explains why a household of four has seven iPods, why people travel 500 miles to shop at an Ikea, and why at age 40 I’m still eating junk food for breakfast. It’s the mystery, stupid.

Something tells me that the CSI guys wouldn’t be too interested in solving the Dinky Donuts mystery, though they’d be well advised to get to the bottom of whether Frankenberries are supposed to make your urine turn red.

My relationship with junk cereal reminds me a lot of what my father once said about Wal-Mart: “I hate Wal-Mart for putting local merchants out of business, but I love their low prices.” I hate junk cereal because, well, it’s junk, yet I love its tasty donutty goodness, incisors be damned.

Still, I have a dream that one day I’ll break the addiction and move on to something less evil, like…um…Pop Tarts? Until that day, I’ll take comfort in the words of John “Sitting on a Corn Flake” Lennon: “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one; I hope someday you’ll join me, and…CRUNCH, CRUNCH, CRUNCH, CRUNCH, CRUNCH.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Wire restores my faith in TV; ruins my faith in journalism

I recently finished watching the last season of the Wire, the ridiculously great show that no one ever watched and, incredibly, did not get nominated for a single Emmy this year.

Its final and maybe best season is all about our hero, Jimmy McNulty, getting so fed up with things at the Baltimore Police Department that he "invents" a serial killer to get a cop car that works, a wiretap, and overtime hours. I won't get into how he gets the bodies or links the crimes, suffice to say: he does. Great premise.

The even-better thing about the season is that we get to see the inner workings of the Baltimore Sun. The morally bankrupt cop has nothing on the fledgling journalist who, realizing that reporting takes work and sources, "sweetens" his stories with phony quotes and people who may or may not exist. Of course, the management at the Sun doesn't care if some of his facts are questionable, because "if it bleeds, it leads."

The definitive season highlight is McNulty calling the journalist and pretending to be "the serial killer," knowing full well that the journalist is making up the facts as he goes along. Funny and thrilling in a "don't get caught, Vic Mackey!" kind of way.

That's all I'll say, other than that this should be required viewing for everyone as a primer on cops, politics, PR, education, and journalism. If you've never seen an episode, I envy you: order the five seasons on DVD and watch them in a row. If you don't think that it's the best TV you've ever watched, then - like Leone Baxter once said - you like corn more than caviar.

RIP: the Wire.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Brent Butt, but, but, but...

Before I left Saskatchewan yesterday, I had lunch at the lovely and historic Hotel Saskatchewan, where Regina's most famous celebrities hang out, Goodale.

True: the last time I was there, I ran into the finance minister himself, who worked the room like (insert the inappropriate John Edwards metaphor of your choice here). Honestly, though, Ralph sang happy birthday to people, he served them brunch, he wrote them cheques - the guy is a PR machine. Yay, Ralph.

Fast forward one year later: yesterday, back at the Hotel Saskatchewan, I run into Brent Butt, star of CTV's Corner Gas. By coincidence, the day before, I sent him an e-mail inviting him to talk to the Cre-Comm students on his last promotional tour for the show.

I used to do stand-up with Brent, so I confidently went up to him and said, "Hi, Brent. We used to do stand-up together at Rumor's. Remember me?"

He didn't, so I said (hilariously), "Yeah, it's pretty dark in that club. huh-huh, huh-huh."

Once the laughter subsided (wah, wah, wah), I knew I had him, so I invited him to come speak to the Cre-Comm students on his promotional tour (the last) for Corner Gas. I realized that he hadn't swallowed his salad yet, so I said, "Goodbye" and he said, "See you around."

Now, if it turns out that this somehow actually works, and he comes to talk to the students, then the moral of the story is: Brent Butt rules, especially in light of the rude interruption of his lunch.

If he doesn't come out, then the moral of the story is: there's always Ralph Goodale.