Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Most irritating words, phrases, and expressions of the decade

They Might Be Giants and their list of meaningless phrases.

Word up.

Yeah, that one can go too.

Now that we're entering a new decade, I'd like to lead the charge in eliminating the following list of irritating words, phrases, and expressions from the vocabulary.

Please let me know if I've missed any, and yeah, feel feel free to mock me by including "iPhone," "Kindle," "blog," "new media," "New York Times," and "tweet" in your nominations.

That said...oh yeah, that one's banned too.

1. "Unique"

The lazy copywriter loves "unique," because it eliminates the need to say what, specifically, is unique or special about something.

Ask an ad copywriter who's used the word "unique" the question, "What is actually unique about this product?" and the answer is almost always, "Nothing, so I used the word unique."

As John Candy says in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles:

2. "That said/that being said"

Larry David blew the lid off of this one in the most-recent season of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Here's how it works: You say something, like "Larsen sure is a genius!" And follow it with, "That being said, he's a real jerk."

The phrase has no function in the English language other than to take back what you've just said. Why not just cut to the chase and just call me a jerk in the first place? That being said, don't.

3. "Think outside the box"

Although this one has been widely ridiculed since Michael Douglas said it in the movie Traffic, it's a stubborn one that's having trouble going away; I probably heard it uttered 20 or more times this year alone, and not ironically.

To truly show that you think outside the box, please prove it by coming up with another way to say "think outside the box." Any suggestions?

4. "24/7"

I remember the first time I heard this little number; I was having lunch with one of my friends, and out the blue, she blurted out, "I heard you've been working 24/7."

I instantly got what it meant and hated it with a passion. Over the course of the lunch, she said it another 30 or 40 times, and it was then that I knew I'd be hearing it a lot in the months ahead from lots of other people, 24/7.

5. "LOL"

The old joke is that "LOL should be replaced with LYHMSF: "leave your house and make some friends." I agree; yet a quick Twitter search of "LOL" shows that it's been used a zillion times in the last day alone, most recently 10 seconds ago.

Please, everyone, stop laughing out loud when you're in front of your computer and, if you are, just keep it between you and your God.

6. "Make no mistake"

Make no mistake: we're going to catch those scumbag terrorists!

Introduced by George W. Bush, and also used liberally by Barack Obama, it means, "I really believe what I'm saying!" If we always believe what we're saying and don't lie, we never need to say, "Make no mistake."

"Make a mistake: we're going to catch bin Laden" is much more accurate anyway.

7. "Random"

Actual quote from an ex-girlfriend: "We were walking down this random beach and met these random guys, and it was really random because they worked at this random restaurant where we used to randomly hang out with random friends, and..."

Use of this word makes it especially hard to teach "random sampling" when we discuss research in public relations class, so I hereby offer up the alternatives: arbitrary, miscellaneous, chance, or - my favorite - slapdash!

8. "It is what it is"

Perhaps what bugs me the most about this terrible phrase, other than that it adds absolutely nothing to any conversation, is that it's really just a thin translation of the old Popeye catchphrase, "I yam what I yam," and implies that the person who says it is completely helpless to do anything about the situation in question:

Mom: "You got an F on your report card!"

Child: "It is what it is."

Uh, no, actually, in this case, it is what it isn't.

9. "My bad"

The most flippant apology out there, insidious for allowing someone to apologize without actually apologizing.

By implying that there's a range of suspects, the person who says, "My bad," inevitably acts like he or she doing the honorable thing by "clearing up the confusion."

"George Washington, did you cut down this cherry tree?"

"My bad."

Doesn't quite have the conviction of "I cannot tell a lie - it was I!"


This word has been out there for a long, long time.

A variation of scumbag, it's only been in the past year that I've noticed people falling over with laughter at its very utterance, even when it's not being used in a funny story or context. What gives?

There are very few words that are funny in and of themselves, except for maybe "jaws of life" and "panties."

So, don't laugh just because someone says douchebag - make them earn your laughter by using it as punctuation to a story that's already hilarious. Plus, everyone knows that "mofo" is much funnier.

11. "Two thousand and..."

Welcome to twenty-ten, baby!

The secret to never running out of ideas: a notebook

My first duotang: maybe you can tell a book by its cover.

"I'm just not creative." Wah, wah, wah!

I can't tell you how many times a year I hear the above line uttered in advertising class (minus the wah, wah, wah, because I've been banned from saying it around the office).

The reality is that anyone and everyone can be creative. All good writing - creative, comedy, advertising, blog posts, whatever - just comes down to paying attention, writing things down, and not criticizing your ideas for being "bad, wrong, or stupid" before they've even had a chance to breathe.

Often, the only difference between someone we think of as "creative" and someone we think of as "non-creative" is that the creative person has a notebook, carries it around everywhere, and writes down every idea he or she thinks of, bad or not - like the joke journal I get every comedy writing student to keep over the course of one semester.

Great ideas rarely come to us fully formed, so the great thing is that you can write down anything that crosses your mind: ideas, dreams, jokes, stories, or whatever.

It's simply a numbers game: the more ideas you write down, the more good stuff you'll have to choose from later on.

And, in advertising, when your client shoots down all of your ideas, you save them up in a book, so you can use them for other campaigns later on; as NBC once said in its promos, "If you haven't seen this rerun, then it's new to you!"

My first duotang of ideas

I was considering this the other day when I was rifling through my mother's desk, looking for cash, blank cheques, and other negotiable instruments, and came across my journal (above photo), which must've been from when I was six or so.

The great thing about the book is that it's full of illustrations (see photo, below), poems ("The Old Owl with a Cowl"), parodies ("The Wrong Brothers"), and stories ("Atomic Man!") I wrote at the time, and most of them are - in fact - really terrible.

However, the book is also a really funny look into the things that a kid thinks about, and something that I could easily pull out for "a dramatic reading" the next time I do stand up. Say, now there's a great idea!

Fears of a clown

Case in point: "A funny clown," a story I wrote to work out my bad experience at the circus, where I had the heebie-jeebies scared out of me by what we called at the time, "a lady clown."

Although the story would be somewhat scary for a kid to think about, I think I called it "A funny clown" to remind myself that even if clowns scare the hell out of you, they're really not as scary as they seem. Right? Right? Who's with me?

The story, bad punctuation and spelling included:
A funny clown

"One day I went to the circus there was a funny clown. He had ten toes. They had a rodeo. The clown rode a wild horse. Then he went flying off the horse. Everyone heard siren of the ambulance. E-r-r-r-r-r-r-r He was rushed to the hospital.

"The doctor happened to be a veterinarian. He gave him medicine turned into a dog. The doctor said: well, better then ever! but he was a mea dog. He gulped up all the medicine.

"By that time he elephant's nose, a dinasour tail and a kangaroo's pouch. All the nurses were scream's (page cut off). They were hiding there faces. The turned back into a clown and walked away."

And all was right in the world.

Start your creative writing notebook today!

Monday, December 28, 2009

The first guerrilla marketing campaign was elephantine

Edison: inventor of light bulbs, electrocutor of elephants.

The above film is perhaps the first guerrilla marketing/propaganda/publicity stunt/viral video of all time, courtesy of the world-famous inventor, renowned genius, and, er, torturer of animals, Thomas Edison.

AC versus DC

In the late 1800s, in an attempt to discredit competitor Nikola Tesla and Westinghouse's "alternating current" technology, Edison launched a shameless PR campaign to prove that the technology was much more dangerous than his "direct current" approach.

His efforts included paying neighborhood kids 25 cents a pop to round up stray cats and dogs; once they did, he held news conferences where he'd electrocute the animals using "dangerous alternating currents" to the horror of the invited guests. 

Zzzzap. "See how dangerous this AC technology is, my friends?" Zzzzzap.

It's not known whether there was ample parking, refreshments were served, or anyone used the expression, "a win-win scenario." 

As part of his campaign, Edison also commissioned one of his employees, Harold Brown, to invent the electric chair - powered by dangerous AC - so he could say that the condemned men on whom it was used had been "Westinghoused." 

Sending Topsy turvy

But Edison's true piece de resistance happened in 1903, when he volunteered to kill Topsy, the "rogue Coney Island elephant" using - you guessed it - 6,600 volts of AC. Later, he released the above film under the sensitive title, "Electrocuting an Elephant."

Despite Edison's electric PR efforts, AC eventually won out as the best way to deliver power. And AC/DC made millions of dollars touring the world as a rock and roll band. 

Edison, of course, went down in history as one of the world's greatest inventors, a kind and grandfatherly figure we can thank every time we turn on a light switch and watch a YouTube video showing what happens to an elephant when it's electrocuted. 


Six, great books (plus one) to read on your week off

1. If you're interested in advertising, read Rob Walker's book, Buying In, now available in paperback. I love Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This, but Walker's book is probably the best look at the modern world of advertising and marketing (make that "murketing") I've read. 

2. If you're interested in the ever-eroding broadcast business, read Bill Carter's Desperate Networks, also now available in paperback. 

Every TV show that actually makes it to air and becomes a hit is a little miracle. As this book proves, the stories behind Desperate Housewives, Lost, and American Idol are more fascinating than the shows themselves.

3. If you're interested in journalism, read Norman Mailer's the Executioner's Song - a reminder of what well-researched journalism and great storytelling look like, lest we forget. 

One thousand and seventy two gripping pages about Gary Gilmore, who in 1977 became the first person executed (by firing squad) after the reinstitution of the death penalty, struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972. 

4. For more-recent, but equally great, journalism, read Columbine by Dave Cullen. 

I read and reviewed the book (here) in May. Cullen's book dissects the psychology behind the Columbine killings, corrects the many commonly held misconceptions about what happened that terrible day in Colorado, and holds broadcast media accountable for much of the confusion. 

As I said in May, it's a must-read for any student enrolled in a communications or media course.

5. If you're interested in great creative writing and fiction, read One Day by David Nicholls. 

I reviewed this book in October here, and it's stuck with me ever since. Inspiring for being a breezy read with a cool big idea (each chapter advances the story by one year), it knocks you senseless with its devastating postscript, asking and and answering some very hard questions about the true nature of love, loneliness, chemistry, and fate. 

I gave out three copies of this book as Christmas presents this year, and I'll probably give out more for birthdays in 2010. When's yours? 

6. If you're interested in PR, read Leonard Saffir's Power Public Relations.

I was a little hesitant to recommend this book, since it came out in 1999, and doesn't talk about new media. 

Nonetheless, I constantly refer to this book throughout the school year, and think it's the best one-stop shop for folks looking for a quick and easy-to-read guide that effectively covers the broad areas of the PR industry: media relations, crisis communications, issues management, news conferences, running a PR firm, and building and evaluating a successful PR program. 

7. If you're Amanda Lefley, read this book, so you can answer the most pressing question of our times: "Who the hell is Dick Francis?!"

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Remember Marshall, the apostle of hustle, on Boxing Day

One of my favorite clips from Mr. Show, the Marshall of sketch-comedy shows.

Feel a little guilty going purchase-crazy on Boxing Day? Well, what if I told you that the meek could inherit something a whole lot better than the Earth!?

'Tis the day to remember the overlooked 13th apostle, Marshall - the apostle of hustle, and top pitchman in Galilee, as he's seen here on the second episode of Mr. Show, one of the best and equally overlooked sketch-comedy shows of all time.


How could I have forgotten Elvis Costello's great tribute to Boxing Day? TKO!

Thanks to Kevin to reminding me with this post.

Friday, December 25, 2009

My five fave flicks of 2009

It always sucks putting together a "best movies of the year" list in Canada.

For starters, a lot of the movies that were nominated for last year's Oscars actually didn't come out in Canada until 2009 - so are they 2008 or 2009 films? Most Canadian critics play both sides of the fence, including "whatever films they like" in their lists.

I don't mind it when that happens, but it seems weird to see something that cleaned up at the previous year's Oscars suddenly showing up in a list almost a year later. "And the best film of 2009 is...Titanic!"

Complicating matters, I'm a huge fan of foreign films - I always say that the best movies of the year are actually the nominees for the Oscar in the "Best Foreign Film" category.

(By the way, if you don't see a film because it has subtitles or it's in black and white, I'm sorry, but you're depriving yourself of broad sweep of film and life, and I can't be your friend anymore. Please give me back my Jar Jar Binks action figure. So, there.)

My favorite film of the last decade is easily the Lives of Others, which came out in Germany in 2006, won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2007 (against Water and Pan's Labyrinth!), and I didn't see until 2008. So, what year did it make my list? No year, because I didn't know where the hell to put it. So, here's to the best film of the decade: watch it today!

Disclaimer: I haven't yet seen Precious, Avatar, Moon, or the Hurt Locker. Everyone loves them, though, so go see them. I will too.

With that in mind, here are my top five films of 2009, all listed here because they took my jaded heart and actually made it feel something - and, I'm happy to point out, no movie starring "Mudflaps" or "Skids" made the list:

1. District 9

I know that some people hated this film, but it constantly surprised and delighted me; I had no idea that I was really, really needing the British edition of the Office (which I loved), Independence Day (which I hated), and a critique of apartheid (which, we can all agree, sucks) to come together in one, great movie that made me laugh and cry at the same time.

Yeah, the fight at the end was somewhat anti-climactic, but I forgive it for the very last shot of the film, which gave us closure and left us hanging at the same time. No sequel, please - it would never live up to what I imagine happens next...

2. The Class

Here's what I said when I first reviewed this film:
Every teacher is in charge on the first day of school.

But, as every teacher knows, if you truly give your students the education they deserve, at some point they will reject your authority as part of their blossoming confidence and independence; it's normal, just like when a child reject's her parents' authority the first time she stays out past her curfew.

The key, though, is that the rejection has to come at the right time: on the last day of school is better than, say, the second week of the semester.

This is what the great French movie, the Class (Entre les murs), is about: the subtle and not-so-subtle power struggle that happens between teacher and students in any classroom.
A must-see for thoughtful teachers and students everywhere:

3. 12

In another "who would've thunk it?," one of my favorite films of the year was a Russian remake of the classic 1957 film, 12 Angry Men.

Twelve Russians locked in a high school gym consider the fate of a boy accused of murdering his stepfather. Through monologues and flashbacks punctuated by symbolism (I still don't know what "the dog" means), racially charged outbursts, and votes that swing from guilty to not guilty and back, we get a gripping meditation on the universality of justice and prejudice, which becomes all the more powerful when considered alongside the classic American film.

If you haven't seen either one, I envy you; rent both and make a day of it. Afterward, Norm Larsen will stop by your house and read his book out loud.

4. Star Trek

Yes, there is room on my list for this, the most exciting Star Trek in ages and the best prequel of all time: perfect action, casting, and writing, but for one misstep: couldn't William Shatner have at least recited the famous Star Trek mission statement at the end of the film? Throw the guy a friggin' bone already...

5. Summer Hours

Grandma dies, and the kids and grandchildren are left behind to figure out what to do with "her stuff."

From this simple premise, we get a film that ponders the meaning of life, art, beauty, value, and worth - monetary, sentimental, and otherwise.

So, what do you do? Sell the house? Sell the stuff? Keep it? Take Indiana Jones' advice and "put it in a museum? " But which of the stuff is "art" and which of the stuff is "memories of grandma?" Which is more valuable and why?

Also awesome:
The Damned United
Tell No One
The Counterfeiters
I've Loved You So Long
Food Inc.
I Love You Man

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Crrr...happy holidays!

My favorite tree, Noel.

So, I had this idea that for Christmas I would hit the Trans-Canada Highway in search of fame, fortune, and glory.

As I drove toward Brandon (about two hours ago), I discovered that this is what they mean when they say, "Some slippery patches with reduced visibility:"

The Road Warrior, Canadian edition.

Translation: "You can't see squat, you can skate the entire way to Vancouver, stay home."

I need a drink.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

RRC CreComm students to work on Zooey & Adam PR campaigns

Daria Puttaert and Tom Keenan in Zooey & Adam.

For their major PR project next semester, first-year CreComm students at Red River College will be working on publicity campaigns for Winnipeg director Sean Garrity's controversial new film, Zooey & Adam.

Garrity will visit Red River College on Thursday, Jan. 7 to discuss and show clips from the film, which has played at the Atlantic, Edmonton, Vancouver, and Calgary Film Festivals.

In the weeks following his visit, students will put their publicity and writing know-how to the test, putting together PR proposals designed to generate publicity, notoriety, momentum, and word of mouth for the film.

Garrity has been awarded the Special Jury Prize by the Don Haig jury at Toronto's Hot Docs Film Festival and his second film, Lucid, was named best Western Canadian Feature at the 2005 Vancouver International Film Festival, was an Audience Award pick at Cinefest and an official selection of the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival.

His first feature film, INerTia, was awarded Best First Feature at the 2001 Toronto International Film Festival, and he was named Best Director at the 2001 FilmCan Festival. In 2002, he was named one of three "Canadian Filmmakers to Watch" by the Globe & Mail.

Zooey & Adam opens in Winnipeg at Cinematheque on Friday, Jan. 29.

Dear Cinema City McGillivray: I hate you!

Pay no attention to the flashing, red light at the bottom of the screen.
Wah, wah, wah.

Love movies, hate movie theatres.

My love/hate affair with the cinema has been well documented on this blog, most recently last July when I named my five ways to improve movie theatres.

Among my recommendations to theatre owners:
  • Putting ushers back into the theatres;
  • Checking the projection quality and fixing it if it sucks;
  • Banning cell phones/blocking signals/punishing scofflaws;
  • Ending the promo reel that runs loudly before the lights go down;
  • Remembering that the product you're selling is "movies."
To that list, CreComm grad Wade Argo adds "more comfy seats" and "enough with the morons who arrive at the last minute to ruin the experience of those who got there early to scope out their good seats."

As I said in my original blog, I'm hard pressed to think of any other service-oriented industry that treats its patrons with more disrespect and contempt, other than airlines and cell phone providers. But for sheer, "F*** you, patrons!" movie theatres win the grand prize.

Screw you, cheap theatre!

For your consideration, I give you Cinema City McGillivray, where I went to see Zombieland yesterday. The film wasn't my choice, but I enjoyed it until the film's big cameo died and it became other tedious horror movie that ends in nonsensical action and violence at a theme park.

Movie aside, a host of humiliations and disappointments I did find at Cinema City McGillivray, including:

1. Low admission, low expectations

I knew that something was up when I generously treated my friend to the movie, and our two tickets came to a grand total of $3. They don't call me Moneybags Larsen for nothing!

So, the air was not thick with expectation or excitement as we walked through the lobby, and noted that there was no ticket taker to be found anywhere in the building, which means we could've just walked in off the street for free - $3 be damned! - like everyone else seemed to be doing.

As well, my least-favorite theatre innovation was operating in full force - the one that makes the multiplex an "amusement destination" and turns the movie theatre lobby into an arcade.

But instead of the irritating air-hockey game at Silver City, which is clearly audible inside the theatres - great planning! - I got the even-more-irritating dance-a-thon 2000 video game being danced upon by two guys, who had clearly played the game about 1,000 times before and came to the theatre wearing gym shorts under their pants for their big night out.

I don't want to begrudge our dancers for doing what they love, but the effect reminded me a lot of what it feels like to be in a New York City restaurant when a subway train hurls down the tunnel underneath it, sending everyone and everything flying across the room.

Two hours later, when I left the theatre, they were still dancing. Really, isn't that what the Nintendo Wii is for?

2. Loud ads double your displeasure

When I walked into the theatre about half an hour before the movie started, there were already loud ads blaring from the screen; to make matters worse, we in the captive audience were subjected to the same Stella Artois ad twice in a row - the one where "the cool guy" sends the paper boat across the fountain to "the babe" on the other side, and "the cooler guy" sends another boat to sink the first one.

It wasn't funny the first time.

3. I see red, I see red, I see red

So, you're in the movie business, which - let's say for the sake of argument - means that you're in the business of showing films on a screen.

The worst thing you could do as a purveyor of onscreen entertainment, then, would be something that would hurt the consumption of the product, right? Right!

For some reason, the good folks at Cinema City McGillivray installed the flashing, red Exit sign so close to the screen, the bottom, right quarter lit up with an eerie, red, flashing glow for the duration of the film (see above photo). Nice.

4. No ushers mean no respect

Yes, it's true that I took the above photograph with the iPhone in the theatre, which is bad. An usher should have stopped me.

I justify it on the grounds that 1) there was no flash, 2) I was in the back row, 3) I was exposing a greater evil than my own, 4) I took it during the ads/previews portion of the evening.

Not more than two seconds after I took the picture, a guy sitting nearby got a call on his cell phone - ring! ring! - and he actually answered it. Completely oblivious to my angry glares and catcalls, he merrily continued the conversation.

Throughout the rest of the movie, this same idiot constantly checked his cell phone for messages, and - even after realizing that he was pissing people off - kept his ringer on and, when another call came in, took it again.

I was the only guy who said something ("Shut up, Peppy!") and he didn't even react or look my way. Maybe because his name isn't "Peppy."

So I took the advice of my earlier blog, took out a piece, and wasted him. Lesson learned at the movies: one less zombie is always a good thing.

The book

As luck would have it, I was reading the book The Age of Persuasion on the bus this morning, and found kindred spirits in authors Terry O'Reilly and Mike Tennant who, like me, are advertising guys who hate movie theatres and the ads they show.

When I knock ads in movie theatres - which I routinely do - people always call me on it for being an advertising hypocrite. "How can you knock ads when you teach advertising?


O'Reilly says:
"The moviegoer has been demoted from welcome guest to mere chattel. Free (but ad-laden) magazines in the lobby promote upcoming films, ads appear in pre-movie slideshows projected onto the big screen, movie times are adjusted to include cinema ads among the "Coming Attractions" trailers, and all manner of product placements might be tucked within the feature film.

"It isn't the advertising itself that causes movie theatres to violate the contract. It's the erosion of the moviegoing experience, from an evening focused on giving the audience a hilarious, pleasurable, or cathartic time to a litany of non-entertaining sales devices designed to exploit a captive audience.

"And for this you pay them."
Less and less all the time.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

It's Garry Shandling's DVD review: the post-modern precursor to Seinfeld

Garry or Gilligan? Choose wisely.

This is the review to It's Garry Shandling's Show. How do you like it so far?

There are lots of great things about feeling sick and miserable, but one of the best is the embarrassment of time that allows you to watch the entire 16-disc, 72-episode series of a TV series, guilt free.

So, it was with great delight that I've felt bad for the past few weeks, so I could dig into the entire series of It's Garry Shandling's Show, the most inventive, funny, weird, and post-modern sitcom of all time.

The show stars Shandling as himself, a neurotic, hair-obsessed stand-up comic, whose life is a sitcom he inherits when he buys a new condo.

In the first episode, Shandling moves into the space that, we're told, used to belong to Vanna White. It comes fully furnished with sets and cameras, allowing Shandling to wander between sets, look in on other scenes, and talk to the studio audience - just like Oprah and Phil!

This was 1986, so that would be "Phil Donahue," not "Dr. Phil."

The Jerry/Garry comparison

Shandling deserves a lot of credit for predicting the demise of the standard sitcom format over 20 years ago, and aiming to destroy all of the hack sitcom conventions that, years later, were and are still being embraced by Friends and Two and a Half Men.

Even more startling is the degree to which Shandling's show begat Seinfeld. Simply put, Seinfeld owes the success of his own post-modern sitcom and its whole "show within a show" conceit to Garry Shandling:
  • Seinfeld's Newman = Shandling's Leonard Smith;
  • Seinfeld's on-screen mother bears an uncanny resemblance - in terms of look and character - to Shandling's on-screen mom;
  • Seinfeld's platonic friend Elaine = Shandling's platonic friend Nancy;
  • Seinfeld's opening monologue in a club = Shandling's opening monologue in his living room.
  • Seinfeld was a show that said it was about nothing = Shandling's show really was about nothing.
Sure, Seinfeld deserves credit for bringing the form to the masses ("intelligence borrows, genius steals"), and for his year-after-year consistency and endurance, but Shandling is the innovator.

The funniest, catchiest, post-modernist theme song ever

Among the recurring gags is Shandling's introduction of the insanely catchy (and equally post-modern) theme song sung by Bill Lynch, and what Shandling does during the 41 seconds the song plays.

In some episodes, Shandling sits uncomfortably and looks at the camera, in others he brings in guest stars to sing the theme (the Turtles! A Japanese lounge singer! Tom Petty and Doc Severinson!), and in this one, he shows off his great taste in literature, which includes a book by Gavin McLeod, which I have to find as soon as possible:

At its best, Shandling's show works on multiple levels, drawing us into the storyline and cracking us up with its inventive solutions to the characters' sitcom-inspired problems.

In one episode, Garry's young friend, Grant, gets beat up at school. Grant gets blamed by the principal for causing the fracas until an elderly It's Garry Shandling's Show audience member walks out of the audience and onto the set and tells the principal that she's seen everything, because she's been watching the show.

At its worst, the show sometimes gets away from itself by changing its own rules as it goes along and pushing the boundaries of funny into outright odd.

In one closing scene, for instance, castmember "lookalikes" parade through Shandling's living room and meet off camera in his bathroom, where we hear them say hello to each other. It plays like a scene from Luis Bunuel's the Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie or David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, coming off as more "bizarre" than "funny."

(There are smart people who say the show is about "the sacrificial role of the performer in society" and a throwback to Beckett, Sartre, and Buddhism; probably true, though probably not the best way to promote the show.)

The show does wear thin toward the end of the third season and within the fourth, when it introduces a recurring girlfriend, features too many "to be continued" episodes - something that was parodied in an earlier season - and brings back Red Buttons to do the same stand-up act that we've seen him perform on an earlier episode.

Reruns within a new show: now that's post-modernism that a network exec can believe in!

But really, these are minor complaints given the strength of the early seasons and the overall generosity of the DVD box set, which comes out to less than $2 an episode, and even less when you consider the 36-page booklet, hilarious episode commentaries, and interviews with former cast members (including Shandling himself).

Internet precursor

The show is worth watching as an historical document alone, and for the many moments in which Shandling predicts the advent of reality TV and the Internet with these innovations:
  • Audience interaction and voting;
  • A live episode (in which he incorrectly calls the presidential race for Bush Sr.'s opponent, just like Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, and Peter Jennings would do with Bush Jr.'s opponent years later);
  • An abundance of guest stars (including Gilda Radner's last TV appearance);
  • An episode about TV product placements (Garry's mother keeps appearing in his living room to pitch her pet store until Shandling gets her to buying her paid ad time);
  • A recurring, self-conscious, and continuing critique of the show as it goes along ("This episode really sucks..."). An old-school version of Twitter if I ever saw one.
It's Garry Shandling's Show is easy viewing: good-natured, entertaining, and funny. And, at 72 episodes, take it from me: it makes being sick and miserable your best option.

Friday, December 18, 2009

What are they selling at "Stitch City Tailor?"

The most innocuous store in Grant Park Mall is selling a lot more than inseams.

I ran across this poster hanging on the window of Stitch City Tailor yesterday, the mall store that's best known for not being known - until now!

This poster made me stop dead in my tracks and laugh out loud: never before in the history of civilization has there been a greater disparity between what's being sold on a poster and what's being sold in a store.

In the window: steamy sex. In the store: steamed chinos. Any questions?

The bloggunist manifesto: the rules of professional blogging

"Professional blog?! Why, that's like saying "postal service!""

Cue the trombone: "Wah, wah, wah."

I've found that when I tell people about our "professional" student blogging and Twitter network in the CreComm program at Red River College, two things happen:
  • They say, "Wow, that's cool."
  • They say, "There's no such thing as a professional blog!"
Despite one or two tweets featuring the word "f**k" (a word I admit that I use a lot when vacuuming in a hurry) and the occasional student blog that offends my sensibilities by telling me that some other instructor's class is better than mine - be gone, heretic! - I think that we've avoided most of the bad things oft associated with the art and science of blogging and tweeting.

But, having explained it to my friends, Romans, countrymen, and servers at Earl's numerous times, I'm finally ready to present the things that make a blog professional in a surprisingly short, but sweet, list.

Let's call it...

The bloggunist manifesto!

1. Factual accuracy

In stand-up comedy, the premise has to be true in order for the audience to laugh at the punchline, hence the old saying, "Buy the premise, buy the bit."

So, a good standup comic will say, "When I was a kid, the kids treated me badly." A hack stand-up comic will say, "When I was a kid, I was abducted by aliens in my backyard." No you weren't. Shut up.

To extend that, it's up to the blogger to verify the things that he or she is writing about; it drives me nuts when a blogger says, "I'm not sure if I'm spelling this right." No? Well, you're obviously online, so look it up!

Similarly, the opinion can be zany in order to prove a point, but not at the expense of the facts, or premise.

2. CP style/grammar/spelling
3. Common decency

I'm combining spelling with decency, because the two really go hand in hand.

In a previous post (which I'm not linking to on purpose!), I riled up one or two readers by saying that it's the bad grammar and spelling that makes a blog great. OK, I admit that I was just taking the piss out of newspaper editors.

Bloggers should have the right to express themselves as they see fit. Sometimes, that means that profanity is OK (like "piss" in the above sentence), and - like in advertising copy - you need to express yourself in a grammatically incorrect way to prove your point. Like this sentence does, fellers. OK?

However, the thing that separates the professionals from the monkeys is that they have a code by which to live. That code is CP style, which I generally follow, except ignoring the Canadian spellings of things - sorry, but years of working for American clients have shown me that the word "color" when written "colour" works for them about as well as an entire document in French.

As the saying goes, "You need to know the rules before you decide to break them."

The notion of "decency" is a tough one, but I define it as "anything you're not afraid to show your mother or potential employer."

My mother reads this blog, and that's what keeps it so decent. If she stopped reading it, the number of f-bombs would astound you. If more mothers read more blogs, the world would be a better place in which to live!

4. Personal opinion

I've noticed that some of my anti-blogging friends believe that blogs stink and traditional journalism is awesome because blogs feature personal opinion and professional journalism does not.

In fact, blogging is more like being a newspaper columnist than a reporter. As the NY Times public editor recently said:
"A columnist can be touch, acerbic, playful, joyful, angry, chagrined, outraged or anything else - within the general bounds of decency that are embodied in the values of the Times."
A family member recently gave me some articles from the Winnipeg Free Press, circa 1938.

"Objective" war reporting, as it turns out, featured all kinds of personal opinion, like in this sentence written by Gladys M. Arnold on Oct. 21, 1938 about the evacuation of Paris:
"In spite of the rain, which poured down from dark overcast skies - as though even nature lamented the folly and stupidity of man - gangs of workmen dug into the smooth lawns of the public parks and mutilated the gardens bordering the Champs-Elysees, hastily constructing emergency trenches to shelter pedestrians against air attack."
Factual accuracy plus personal opinion = awesome journalism and blogging!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

How to make money off of your music, part III

Winnipeg Dec 5 2009

I recently wrote about attending McGill University's Shelley Stein-Sacks' Manitoba Music presentation on "Marketing music in the new economy."

Today I got my hands on the PowerPoint slides from the presentation, above.

We're hoping to look at doing some joint projects between Red River College and McGill University in the future, perhaps where McGill students create the music and CreComm students create the promotions.

More info - I hope - to come.

It's the most miseraful time of the year!

"It was Christmas Eve, babe. In the drunk tank..."

I remember the first time I heard Fairytale of New York by the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl (Brietta writes about the song here).

My girlfriend and I had just broken up - the day before Christmas - and I played the video (VHS!) over and over and over until the tape wore out, and I couldn't figure out whether the boys of the NYPD choir were singing "Galway Bay" or "Go away."

It may have been the soaring strings, it may have been, "Merry Christmas, your arse, I pray God it's our last!," but something in the song resonated with me, and I've loved it ever since, in a miserable, feeling-sorry-for-myself kinda way.

Why, it's enough to make me actually want to spend Christmas Eve in the drunk tank. This year, for sure!

It's a bittersweet Christmastime tune to be sure - funny and a little depressing, even more so when you consider how great Kirsty MacColl looks in the video, and how tragic it is that she died so young.

There's no doubt about it, there are two sides to the holidays, just like a bearded Elvis Costello once sang about summer. Right insight, wrong season.

Blue Christmas

The reality is that you can't be an adult human and not have experienced some degree of sadness at holiday time, whatever holiday it is you celebrate at whatever time of year. It's life.

For me, the whole ambivalence probably started as a kid when my parents got divorced. I still remember the first, pathetic words out of my mouth when I found out what was going on: "Are we still going to have Christmas?" Ugh: like that might change things.

Of course, my story is nothing compared to the gold standard lousy Christmas: John Bender's story in John Hughes' the Breakfast Club: his dad gets him a pack of smokes and says, "Smoke up, Johnny!"
The have-nots

The holiday season, for me, has always felt more about those who don't have than those who do. It regularly gives me pause to consider that more people would rather pay $20 to see Jamie Fox play a homeless man in a movie than give $20 to an actual homeless man who could really use it.

One year, I delivered a hamper to a small house in the north end, and it practically broke my heart to see the two, little kids come running to the door in their diapers - big smiles - "The hamper is here, the hamper is here!"

Looking around, I saw that this family had practically nothing inside the house, and that this delivery was going to be the highlight of their holiday. As I walked out of the house, I glanced into the window, saw the little kids opening the toys we'd wrapped and put inside the bundle, and it all suddenly didn't feel like it was even close to enough.

Whenever I hear people at this time of year inevitably complain that the Christmas Cheer Board gets abused by people who don't need hampers, I wonder what I'm supposed to do with that info: not help out? The vast majority of people who get a hamper - trust me - needs it.

It's also no secret that the holiday season can be more hard and intense for people who are already suffering from depression, loneliness, loss, sickness, and economic hardship.

If you were one of the millions of people in North America who are unemployed, not in school, and without any income (or health insurance!) whatsoever, how would you feel about the fast-approaching holiday? I'm guessing that "merry" and "happy" wouldn't be the first two words that come to mind.

I read Jennifer Hanson's blog yesterday, in which she confesses her own ambivalence about the season. She says:
"But the holidays are tough when you're depressed. Imagine having to pretend even harder that things are "okay", not just okay but "awesome" for a whole month? It was always tough for me to do. I wondered why the Christmas "magic" didn't hit me the same way it hit me when I was a kid."
Good question!

I remember ripping into my G.I. Joe Training Centre - cave and rubber snake included - and not having a care in the world, other than scratching my chicken pox every once in awhile, which was absolutely no hindrance at all when it came time to attack G.I. Joe with a rubber snake.

Could it be possible to harness that positivity and pure happiness, minus the pox, for all time?

The Festivus for the rest of us

I asked a sensible friend today that very question, and she came back at me with some great advice: "Stop thinking about it. Get over it." Truly the two-step process to success! I will give it my best shot.

Whenever you feel ambivalent about something, it somehow always feels better to know that there are more people like you. If misery loves company, maybe the Festivus for the rest of us should be a big pity party at MTS Centre.

I'll bring the dip, the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl can bring the tunes, and Miss Otis can send her regrets.

Update: Martin Short reminds us to not kill ourselves on the holidays. It's a terrible cliche!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

How to have a number-one hit single in the UK - guaranteed!

In my last post about "how to make money off of music," I neglected to mention the best way of all: by reading Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty's great book, "The Manual: How to have a number one the easy way."

The book is directed mostly at a UK audience, and involves the steps one must take in order to have a hit single on the British charts. So sure are the writers that their advice will work, they offer a money-back guarantee:
"The complete price of the manual if you are unable to achieve a number one single in the official UK charts within three months of purchase of this manual and on the condition that you have fulfilled our instructions to the letter."
Although the book was published in 1988, it's remarkably prescient: Drummond foresees a future in which you don't need to go into a studio to record an album, people plagiarize and steal your work days after it comes out, and promises that "flame will flicker."

By the way, this book is only available from the UK and in short supply. has copies listed at 88 pounds - $170 each! I got mine for the 15-pound cover price a few years ago when it was rereleased for a limited time, which I'm sure it will be again.

If you can't wait, it's also available on eBay for a mind-bending $374. I'll tell you what: I'll photocopy mine for you for $40, proceeds going to Winnipeg Harvest and RRC's photocopy repair fund!

Dr. Who, Dr. Who. Hey!

Drummond is well known in the UK for being a member of the band the KLF, and having his own number-one single, the novelty number "Doctorin' the Tardis," recorded under the Timelords moniker. The song is pure camp, melding Dr. Who, Sweet, and Gary Glitter, which - anyone in my ad class will remember - still counts as "being creative:"

Among the duo's great advice:

1. Go on the dole (the UK's oft-celebrated version of EI): anyone with a proper job doesn't have time to record a hit. And being broke "fuels the fantasy" of being rich. J.K. Rowling, anyone?

2. Conduct research - listen to the radio, buy the Guinness Book of British Hit Singles, listen to any singles that have ever made the UK top five, etc.

3. Make the most of your studio time - you don't need the most expensive studio, because a hit single doesn't need to sound like a million-dollar production, unlike a hit album.

4. Your song needs a dance groove, must be no longer than 3:30, and the formula is simple: intro, verse, chorus, second verse, second chorus, a breakdown section, back into a double-length chorus and outro. Lyrics: you need some, but not many.

Sound familiar?

5. The ability to sing is NOT a requirement, and it will actually hurt your chance at your song's success. Voice quality and attractiveness only come into play if you want a "career," but you're only after a hit single, right?

6. Promotion - so full of advice is this section of the book, it's another blog post. Among their great advice is how to fool elitist DJs into thinking your release is a rare import and journalists into thinking they've "discovered" your song.

The success stories

Devotees of the Manual who claim to have followed its pattern to success include the Pipettes ("Your kisses are wasted on me!"), Chumbawamba ("Tubthumping," of course), Edelweiss (the Austrian band famous for using the word "Edelweiss" in its songs - don't ask, just accept that Austria has its own Wang Chung), and the Klaxons.

So what are you waiting for? What will your number one hit on the UK charts be?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Marketing music and other things that no one wants to buy

McGill's Stein-Sacks and my Saturday-morning remedial music class.

The marketing question of our times:
"How do you make money from free?"
Perhaps there is no one fighting harder to answer that question than the lowly musician.

Once "radio-friendly unit shifters," in recent times our musical artist has found herself unable to get paid for her music - now in intangible digital-file format! - reduced to pitching T-shirts and touring smaller markets to more and more niche audiences.

You know something is up when even a band as huge as the Rolling Stones has started to notice markets like Regina and Halifax.

Manitoba Music seminar

With that in mind, I recently attended a Saturday seminar on "Marketing Music in the New Economy" at Manitoba Music, partially because I'm advising two CreComm students on their Independent Professional Projects this year (promoting local musicians Rebel Yell and Joel Nickel), and also because "the music problem" is an interesting marketing challenge.

The solution to this challenge could have repercussions for not only the music business, but all of the other businesses that have been hit hard by new media (newspapers, photography, and the once recession-proof porn industry, to name just a few).

Having worked at promoting musicians in the past, I know how it usually works: the musical genius toils for a year (or years) to make a CD, puts it out, and waits for something to happen. It doesn't, so he or she records another CD, puts it out, and repeats the process.

The musical mind tends to shut down when it comes to promoting the product, which is probably common among artists in all mediums. "Commerce" is the point where "artistry" becomes a business and is, therefore, less interesting to the artist.

But, "everyone's gotta eat," right? And it's harder for a musician to eat when no one buys his or her music anymore, right? Right!

So, I was pleased to see a number of musicians at the seminar living up to their reputation as being flighty, creative, and mostly uninterested in the promotional side of the business - but doing their best to force it upon themselves in these troubled times, which is really all you can ask.

The basics of making money in the music business today

The seminar was conducted by Shelley Stein-Sacks who teaches about the music business at the Schulich School of Music at McGill University.

Some snapshots of what he had to say:

1. Marketing music is about creating memorable experiences - you have to know who you are before you know what you're going to say.

2. Live performance is bigger than music sales, because it can't be duplicated. As a new artist, you should never play more than 20 or 30 shows a year to create urgency among an audience to come out to see you; once you can fill 250 seats with paying customers, tour all you like.

3. For Canadian musicians, the best market is your city and the largest, closest U.S. cities. For Winnipeg, that would be Minneapolis and Chicago, because - culturally - they're a lot like ours.

4. The slotting allowance ruined music stores. The reason music stores used to work is because the hip people who worked at them front-shelved the merchandise. As soon as the music companies paid for that privilege, the experience bottomed out.

5. Bad "authentic" music is better than good "inauthentic" music. Be genuine in your marketing, speak with your own voice, and be true to your own beliefs.

6. Every band needs a marketing plan that covers brand, fans, publicity, and PR.

7. Never "work out your product" onstage. If it's not ready for the masses, don't perform until it is. "The next one will be better" is the path to musical destruction.

8. Merchandise is where you make most of your money. It's not "the music business," it's "the merchandise business;" however, musicians have to be better at tracking where it all goes and not handing out too many freebies. Zazzle, CafePress Canada, and House of Bands are essential.

9. "The media blitz" kills artists. Promote yourself to a maximum of 10 media outlets to maintain an air of exclusivity.

10. PR is huge. But it's uncontrolled media, so you have to be genuine and true to yourself when you're being interviewed.

11. An electronic press kit (EPK) at is essential. Use succinct phrasing in your EPK, because you want journalists and bloggers to lift it. "Push marketing" doesn't work with an EPK - you have to "pull in" your audience by making them seek you out.

12. Your most important press day is album-launch day. Don't waste it by having a "launch party;" they're no longer news and not part of a marketing strategy, because they don't change anyone's mind.

13. Arts funding is useful, but counterproductive to promotion - it ruins the artist's drive to "do it yourself."

14. A niche audience can pay rich dividends. Case in point: Eileen Quinn, the musician who sings "music for sailors."

The online strategy

Having a good Web strategy is possibly the most important thing for a musician today, according to Stein-Sacks. In addition to using EPKs and the merchandise websites named above, he says that musicians and bands require the following:

1. To control the online experience; MySpace and Facebook aren't enough, you also need a website under your own domain name. Your website should never launch with Flash, which is too boring and makes your audience instantly click away.

2. To be transparent. Continually update your audience with what you're doing. This may take on different forms. See below.

3. To conduct research. Know who your audience is, where they live, what they care about, demographics, etc., and speak directly to that audience. Google Analytics helps.

4. To troll the sites that write about you. When someone writes a blog or posts a podcast about you, thank them by posting a comment in return.

5. To offer online promotions and contests to get people interacting with you.

6. To get on Twitter and Facebook, but don't just sit there when you do. You need to really listen to what people are saying to and about you and respond accordingly.

7. To start a blog, and be prepared to spend eight to 10 hours a week on it. If you can't spend that much time on it, don't do it. A blog is labor-intensive but builds one of the deepest relationships with your audience.

8. Email your fans, but get their permission before you do it. Once you do, don't just sit on your hands: communicate. Only send emails if you can personalize the email, keep the subject line important and short (and avoid spam-like appeals), consider how often is too often, and avoid using use emoticons, all caps, all-bold, or high-priority wingdings.

One last thing

Stein-Sacks' last bit of advice for musicians: selling music and merch is like selling Tic Tacs - the money will come in a little at a time (micropayments), but you'll make enough to live on if you've got the drive, ambition, and talent.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Get your loved ones something to believe in this Christmas! Larsen's Gift Guide, 2009

I went Christmas shopping today, and I (barely) lived to tell the tale.

I woke up feeling under the weather today and about as blue as a guy can be after a week of end-of-semester stress, a bad reaction to the H1N1 shot, feelings of dread brought on by a fast-approaching holiday season, and an existential sense of sadness I have not felt since I took the philosophy of existentialism in university and proved I didn't exist.

As Mick Jagger once sang (not about Christmas), "You make a grown man cry!"

So, it was with much trepidation that I set out to buy a gift for every single person on my Christmas shopping list along with my comrade in arms, Adrienne (not pictured, by request. However, she's as real as my imaginary manservant, Gus, I swear).

Winners and losers

The first thing you notice about Christmas shopping is the cognitive dissonance between what it's supposed to be like and what it's actually like. And no more is this more obvious than when you walk into Winners - the place that women love, and men don't - and will never - understand.

Call me crazy, but I've never found it thrilling to rifle through a pile of men's gitch just to find a pair for $2 that isn't encrusted with bodily fluids. "Woo-hoo! Who's the winner now, losers?!"

It also filled me with glee to note Winners' mission statement, proudly displayed on the front counter, and including the lines: "Provide a friendly environment, a neat and clean store, (and) an easy-to-shop store:"

And then experiencing that environment for myself:

Larsen's gift-giving guide

With that ugliness out of the way, here are my picks for the best gifts of the season, as I found them on my shopping spree today and where you can still find them (I'm sure) tomorrow.

1. Little Red Riding Hood Barbie (Winners, Polo Park):

Decked out in her most alluring knee-high saloon stockings, Barbie catches the interest of the big, bad wolf, who - at chest level, can't resist sticking out his tongue and slobbering all over her.

This particular item was pointed out to me by my new favorite Winnipegger, a young woman who was as delighted and horrified as I was to run across this item - and who somehow knew she'd find her soul mate in me.

"They should pull this off the shelf," she said. "It makes you want to buy them, just so you can burn them."

As I left the store, I ran into her again and she said, "Merry Christmas, and see you at the Barbie burning!"

Little Red Riding Hood Barbie: uniting friends against a common enemy at Christmas time!

2. Big Rock Eddie Awards Calendar (MLCC)

The Eddie Awards are the annual advertising contest sponsored by Big Rock; basically, you create a print ad or video, and you can win a prize.

This calendar/promo piece features past submissions and is available at MLCC for the low, low price of "free."

"How many of these can I take?" I asked the friendly clerk at the MLCC location on Portage Avenue next to Shoppers.

"As many as you like," she replied.

I took 25.

3. A large Santa head (outside the Bay, downtown)

These giant Santa heads are all over the walkway leading to the Bay downtown, and - since they have no price on them - I can only assume they're free.

I took 25.

4. Happenin' dude outfit (GKS Gift Store, Portage Place)

I hate to spoil my new wardrobe surprise for 2010, but - get ready for semester two orientation, my CreComm peeps.

5. Untreated shirt (the Bay downtown)

There's no better way to show your good taste in shirts than by wearing the features of your shirts on your sleeve, in both official languages. Includes something called "moisture management." Eww.

6. Prepackaged McDonald's manager outfit (Winners, Polo Park)

I can smell those McChickens already!

7. McWilliam's Callaway Tiger Woods Slipper/Seduction Set (MLCC)

8. The Rhino (Shoppers Drug Mart)

"Excuse me, sir, but are you wearing the Rhino?"

"No, but thank you very much."

Proof that when you don't have a product, a provocative name will do.

9. Oh, Boy! Oberto Beef Jerky (Shoppers Drug Mart)

Beef Jerky is always a great Christmas present, but what's Shoppers Drug Mart doing stocking this stuff next to the Rhino?

10. Gift pack: Britney Spears Believe perfume and Snickers Believe chocolate (Winners and Shoppers Drug Mart, respectively)

I believe - that I'll have another Snickers, Britney.

11. Crimpers (as seen at the Bay)

Crimped hair is coming back, baby!

And now, I must sleep. I'm beat.