Saturday, February 28, 2009

"What do you do to keep up with worldwide events?"

Here's a vlog from YouTube, below, which does my heart good.

It's a self-professed "rambling" stream of consciousness on the state of the media from Katz20two; she reminds me of the students we get in the Creative Communications program at Red River College, *(start plug) who are - for my money - the best in the land (end plug).*

It's great that she's so earnest and genuinely interested in what's up with the media, and using new media - if we can still categorize YouTube with that sweeping generalization - to express that concern.

It's also very interesting to see someone who's obviously YouTube-savvy admit that she feels like she's behind the times in terms of getting her news.

Tell that to the senior citizen who's never been online! Before my grandmother passed away last year, I showed her "the Internet" and after five minutes, she said, "Don't you have to go home now?" Ha, ha! A sure sign that grandma wasn't buying into the new media.

Watching Katz20two's video, I'm reminded of something that every teacher and student should know: "One of the sure signs of intelligence is knowing what you don't know."

Last night I watched Alexandra "daughter of Nancy" Pelosi's scary HBO documentary: "Right America: Feeling Wronged," and never before has the difference between "knowing what you don't know" and "being proud of being stupid" been so clear. Check out a clip from the documentary here.

Back to the original point: if you're trying to get into Creative Communications, or a student in Creative Communications, these are the same kinds of questions you should be asking yourself: how do you get your news, how is that changing, how will you participate in the new media, and what will we be losing or gaining in the process?

RRC employee runs for school board

Red River College Communication Specialist, Colin Fast, is a candidate in the by-election for school trustee in the Winnipeg School Division, Ward 1.

Colin is running on an interesting platform: that school trustees should have their right to tax taken away. You can check out his blog on the topic right here.

When I worked at Rumors, I often told a joke about how it's unfair that people like me, who have no kids, have to pay education taxes to pay for other people's kids to go to school. The punchline: "Buy a condom, get a refund!" I thought it was a great idea, but it usually got boos from the audience.

That's why Colin is running for office, and I'm not...

The election will be held on March 17.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

RRC Comedy Night Monday, March 2 @ The King's Head Pub

RRC Comedy Night is coming back for an encore.

The show is Monday, March 2 at the King's Head. Tickets are $5 each.

"At least 79 laughs are guaranteed, which works out to about 6.3 cents per laugh, which is a good Winnipeg bargain," says Dave Shorr, comic and organizer of the big event.

Comics include:

Jason Booth
Cole Schapansky
Dan Falloon
Ezra Ginsburg & Payton Richardson
Heather Baker & Alex Rachey
Paul Blawat
Burton & Paul Duncan
Mike Ambrose
Kate Schellenberg
Dave Shorr


Monday, February 23, 2009

Batman, Rourke burn Larsen's Oscar picks

The results are in: I attained a whopping 72 per cent correct on my Oscar picks.

Why not 100 per cent? Mostly my blind allegiance to the Dark Knight and Mickey Rourke. Curse that great movie and equally great actor - they'll get theirs!

The ceremony wasn't my favorite of all time, but I watched it all anyway. Some notes:
  • It's now official: no one can still say, "That Sofia Loren sure looks great for her age.
  • Steve Martin is still funny. Now he should stop doing those crappy-arse films immediately.
  • Ben Stiller will regret that Joaquin Phoenix parody if they find Phoenix's corpse in a hotel room later this year.
  • I like the Japanese guy who ended his speech with "Domo arigato Mr. Roboto."
That's about it. The other good stuff is right here, courtesy of Tom Shales of the Washington Post.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Oscar picks 09

Another year, another "Oscar the Grouch" headline in the Winnipeg Free Press, along with the other 10,000 pages that come up when you Google "oscar the grouch nominations." Confession: I used the same headline 100 years ago when I was entertainment editor of the Projector - and, yes, it was a cliche then too.

I used to also have a big Oscar apartment party every year; I won the pool every year, except the last one, at which time I canceled all future parties - in the same spirit of "It's my ball, and if I can't win, then I'm going to take it home. Nyeah, nyeah."

One year, I also won Movie Village's Oscar contest, and got a free rental every day for a year. Well, that was the prize, but I only ever cashed in about 10 of them. It was bad enough that the people working there called me "the Movie Village Guy."

Last night, I watched Milk, the Wrestler, and Slumdog Millionaire in a row, and I can therefore pronounce Milk the least watchable of (all?) the nominees. "First Milk did this, then he did that, then he did this, then he did that..."Zzzzzz..

The other problem I had with Milk is that it seems like a gay-liberation movie for people who don't know that gay people have been liberated. I can imagine my grandmother watching the film, and congratulating herself at the end for supporting gay rights.

That said, the Wrestler and Slumdog rule. And it was nice to see that Danny Boyle snuck in his signature scene, which he pioneered in Trainspotting: the dirty toilet that our hero must fall into in order to a) gross us out, b) make us laugh, and c) advance the story. More dirty toilets, Danny. More!

So, let's see how I do with my Oscar picks this year. If I get more than half, next year the party's back on!

Actor in a leading role
Mickey Rourke

Actor in a supporting role
Heath Ledger

Actress in a leading role
Kate Winslet

Actress in a supporting role
Penelope Cruz

Best picture
Slumdog Millionaire

Animated film

Art direction
The Dark Knight

Slumdog Millionaire

Costume design
The Duchess

Man on Wire

Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire

Foreign film
I haven't seen any, but I'll guess "The Class," based on its country of origin and subject matter. And, I'll also say that it's my belief that the best foreign film of each year is actually the best film of each year.

The Dark Knight

Musical score
Slumdog Millionaire - for the musical number at the end alone.

Jai Ho, Slumdog Millionaire, for the same reason as above.

Visual effects
Benjamin Button

Sound and sound mixing
The Dark Knight

Adapted screenplay
Slumdog Millionaire

I'm going to take a big chance here on WALL-E.

And to Hell with the documentary and animated shorts. They're the deciding categories in every year's Oscar pool, because no one has seen them, or ever will. Yes, I'm bitter.

Enjoy the show!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Last day: "Conan says goodbye to Late Night" week

Can I sell this on eBay now?

Last night, Conan said his last goodbye to Late Night. It was a strangely unemotional affair, especially in comparison to Letterman's farewell on the same show 16 years earlier.

As expected, good sport and former O'Brien sidekick Andy Richter showed up, looking a little worse for wear with a strange combover. Still, it was good to see the two guys ham it up together, just like they did in the old days.

Will Ferrell, now on Broadway as George W. Bush in "You're Welcome, America," showed up in character as George W. Bush (which wasn't so funny), then danced off in with his "dirty leprechaun" shtick (which was pretty funny).

Conan also released Abe Vigoda back into the wild. It was good to see Abe again; especially if you're like me, and you thought Vigoda died years ago.

The White Stripes also showed up, and did a terrible rendition of "We're Going to Be Friends," which it looked like Conan had requested specifically for his last show.

We got some decent best-of clips, but nothing really came close to David Letterman's emotional and hilarious farewell to Late Night back in 1993; I mean, sheesh, even Letterman got Springsteen to play his last show...a true spine-tingling moment in late-night TV, if there ever was one. As one talkbacker says on the YouTube clip:
"Something magical happens in this video, and you have to look to see it when the Letterman band transitions from routine to unscripted ecstasy."
Letterman also got a tour de force interview performance from Tom Hanks on his last show - just before Hanks lost the sarcasm and became "respectable." Be sure to watch parts 1 and 2 of the interview...Hanks' Cher jokes in part two are classic.

The closest Conan came to that was his closing goodbye, in which he thanked everyone on planet Earth who had helped him become the man he is today: an unintentional precursor to tomorrow's Oscars!

It was good to hear him give a shout-out to former writer Marsh McCall, or as I think of him, "The one writer who was nice to me" when I worked on the show.

The closest Conan's show came to genuine emotion was when he thanked Letterman for “inventing this late-night show” and being “one of the most brilliant broadcasters certainly of the last century and this century and for all of time.”

“Living in his (Letterman's) shadow has been a burden and an inspiration for me for years,” said O'Brien.

O'Brien thanked Leno next, but his more carefully selected words seemed to damn Leno with faint praise. "I owe that man a great deal," said O'Brien. It reminded me of Bill Clinton's famous "that woman" disavowal.

O'Brien also had warm words for Lorne Michaels, and - maybe I'm crazy - but I believe Conan did NOT wish luck to his replacement, Jimmy Fallon: perhaps the least-anticipated host of a late-night show ever (and remember: Chevy Chase and Pat Sajak had late-night talk shows).

So, if O'Brien is no Letterman, and Fallon is no O'Brien, we can look forward to a Carson Daly-helmed Late Night in 16 years. Wah, wah, wah.

Our friend, Aaron Barnhart, at TV Barn has a very interesting take on the upcoming Late Night Wars here.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

'Tis the season for Independent Professional Projects

Breakfast Television's John Ljungberg interviews former Creative Communications students about their Independent Professional Projects.
(The sound kicks in about three seconds into the clip.)

Students enrolled in Creative Communications at Red River College in Winnipeg all cower in fear at the very mention of the letters "IPP." Or so the legend goes...

The Independent Professional Project consists of two full-credit courses in which students develop an original and meaningful piece of work that they propose, complete, and market in order to graduate from the Creative Communications program.

The project must:

• Be approved by a panel of instructors;
• Be developed with a specific client or market in mind;
• Demonstrate creative, technical, and/or analytical skills;
• Be substantial enough to justify the time allotted for the work.

For second-year students, the project ends in semester four - just around the corner - when they present the results of the project to an audience of instructors, classmates, guests, and the college community at large.

Attend this year's IPP event

This year's IPP event takes place at the Park Theatre, from Wednesday, March 11 to Friday, March 13. Everyone is invited to attend for free - the best deal in town.

Note that the above clip highlights the CBC's Ruth Shead and Global TV's Meera Bahadoosingh back when they were second-year CreComm students.

Day five: "Conan says goodbye to Late Night" week; the fans

Letter from a Conan fan. Click to enlarge.

For every critic who bashed Conan O'Brien, there was a letter from a fan who begged to differ. In the early days of the show, it was these fans who kept the show - and O'Brien himself - going.

It may be tough to believe now, but the critics were merciless when O'Brien first appeared on the scene; Letterman was the critical darling, and the NBC gang looked like a bunch of idiots for going with an unknown whose lack of on-air experience made him, as the Washington Post's Tom Shales said at the time:
"A living collage of annoying nervous habits. He giggles and titters, jiggles about and fiddles with his cuffs. He has dark, beady little eyes like a rabbit. He's one of the whitest white men ever."
The rest of the article is just as savage, and ends with a knockout punch:
"On his own CNBC cable talk show Monday night, (Tom) Snyder graciously congratulated O'Brien and plugged the show. One can look back longingly to the time when Snyder kept weary viewers awake with engaging talk from a wide variety of guests - no band, no monologue and very little phony show biz shtick. Snyder is a born broadcaster who can't seem to help but be fascinating on the air. Conan O'Brien is the precise opposite of that."
Even the positive press at the time was bad. Check out this New York Times article from September, 1994: They said it couldn't be done: Conan lives!

The Times article quotes Jeff Jarvis of TV Guide, who called O'Brien "a twitching frat boy who thinks he's much cuter and funnier than he actually is." Says the Times: "In June, Mr. Jarvis amended his opinion: "I have mellowed on the guy. These days he merely bores me"."

Traveling file o' fan letters

Each day at Late Night, they circulated a traveling file containing clippings from the previous day's newspapers and magazines, and an assortment of fan letters. The letters were so entertaining and heartfelt that I started making photocopies and keeping my own file; I figured that I'd want to come back to them again, and I have done so over the years.

Remember, this was just before e-mail became the preferred method of communication, so these letters may now represent the very last of their kind, which is too bad: there's something really great about the typography and obvious work that went into the above "Jeff Jarvis protest letter," from J.C. Biddle in Richmond, VA.

I mean, Biddle took the trouble to type out the letter on a typewriter, send it by snail mail to TV Guide and cc'd Late Night. Would anyone have time - or take the time - to do this anymore?

Biddle's letter is very typical of the fan letters that used to come in to the show. They all pretty much followed this storyline:

1. The critics are nuts; ("A resounding "krunk" to Jeff Jarvis...")

2. Letterman is overrated; ("Dare I say he's overrated and risk caning (sic)?")

3. Conan rules; ("Crammed with inventive and frequently hilarious comedy segments...")

While letters like this may seem crudely assembled by today's standards, these things really had an impact around the office and at NBC. The thinking: if this show inspires this kind of fan interaction, there must be something worthwhile about it.

Were it not for these fan letters - and the fact that Greg Kinnear, Dana Carvey, and Garry Shandling didn't want the job - Conan may not be getting the Tonight Show job today.

Would someone please fly out J.C. Biddle to Burbank for Conan's first night hosting the Tonight Show?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Day four: "Conan says goodbye to Late Night" week; the guests

In the early days of Conan O'Brien, the guests left something to be desired.

As a researcher on the show, I mostly recall meeting Harry Connick Jr., David Cassidy, Cameron Diaz, Michael Moore, Chris Rock, and Harry Shearer. Oh, yeah: and Erica Kane herself, Susan Lucci.

No, Late Night with Conan O'Brien was not exactly an A-list affair in the first season. Fresh after David Letterman left the show to much critical acclaim, I remember watching Conan and wondering, "Why doesn't Conan have Bruce Springsteen, Tom Hanks, or Harrison Ford on his show?"

When I started working there, I discovered the answer: because real celebrities don't do shows that no one watches. Even when Max Weinberg is said celebrity's drummer. Ouch.

So, when you look at these planning calendars from my first two months on the show, you see a lot of folks who would do the show: Abe Vigoda, Leeza Gibbons, Lynne Russell (hey, that was before she was bashing the CBC!), Ron Popeil, etc.

So, it wasn't much of a stretch to get really excited when Cybill Shepherd showed up, or Michael Moore, or Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, or Tom Arnold, or - to a Homicide: Life on the Street fan - one Yaphet Kotto.

I also remember a fateful night at the Fiddler's Green - a little Irish bar next to 30 Rock - where we celebrated Andy Richter's birthday.

I sat next to a sardonic brunette, who charmed me with her sarcastic one-liners and droll take on the celebration. After we staggered out of the bar, my fellow researcher, the equally sardonic Betsy Boyd, said: "You were really charming that Janeane Garofalo." "Who?" I asked.

Yeah, I suck. As a researcher and a dude.

It also makes me angry to see that I didn't take advantage of meeting some folks who weren't big then, but who have since elevated to star status, at least in my mind.

David Sedaris? Don't remember him, but there he is on the calendar. Freedy Johnston? Nope, no recollection. Tripping Daisy? It took the Polyphonic Spree to make me appreciate them. Andy Kindler? I saw him do stand-up in Minneapolis, having no recollection that I'd ever been within earshot of him.

It kind of reminds me of the time I went for lunch with my dad in New York, and found out later - when looking at photos - that Daniel Day Lewis was sitting at the next table.

Time machine, please.

Day three: "Conan says goodbye to Late Night" week; the sidekick

Let's pause for a moment to remember the comic genius of one Andy Richter. If not that, the "lovable good-naturedness" of Andy Richter will do!

Andy, of course, was Conan's sidekick/comic foil/go-to guy for over 400 episodes of Late Night with Conan O'Brien.

He was there from the start, in 1993, and after he left, in 2000, he suffered the worst indignity ever foisted upon a sidekick: he was replaced by no one.

Andy's position on the show was always odd; at first, he took most of the blame for the show, which was almost universally panned. A lot of the first reviews said something like, "Get rid of that sidekick who brings nothing to the show."

It wasn't really his fault. When Conan was struggling, he'd go to Andy, and Andy would have to do his best - which wasn't enough to save some of those early (and terrible) O'Brien fumbles.

But over time, Andy kinda grew on me, and the rest of O'Brien's audience. I first got the sense that Andy might in for the long haul when Frank Black ran video of Andy dancing behind him while he played "Freedom Rock" on the show.

More and more, the show sent Andy out on wacky assignments and he became everyone's favorite lovable guy who would do anything for a laugh. After awhile, he even stood (albeit awkwardly) to one side of Conan to provide the laugh track during the monologue.

When Richter left the show, it was ostensibly to become a TV star in his own right, but it never really panned out for the big lug.

Behind the scenes, Andy was one of the nicest people with whom to work on the show. He was very visible around the office, showed up at all the parties, and even answered all of my questions about the film Cabin Boy, in which he "starred" along with Chris Elliott and David Letterman.

Don't get me started on "Cabin Boy..." - it's genius, I tell you!

Andy's almost certainly a lock as a guest on the show this week; but I think they should just let him back into "the sidekick chair" for the entire week - and maybe forever on Conan's new Tonight Show. Ed McMahon would be proud!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Day two: "Conan says goodbye to Late Night" week; the gifts

When you leave Late Night with Conan O'Brien, this is what you get: a pretty sweet keychain (though I'm told that it could double as a piercing - ouch) from Tiffany & Co.

The "Conan face" is drawn by the man himself - he was famous for drawing little Conan heads all over the office, back in the day. Hmmm...I wonder what that says about your personality if you draw little "self-portraits" everywhere?

This is probably my most prized possession from the show, other than Conan O'Brien's McDonald's order, which I kept ("McChicken!"), but never had the nerve to ask him to sign. One day, I'll make the trip to Burbank to right that wrong.

Day one: "Conan says goodbye to Late Night" week; the memories

Team Conan: that's me giving the big man a poke in the ribs.
And, yes, he's as large and powerful a man as I'm diminutive and cuddly.

As any Late Night fan knows, this is Conan O'Brien's last week on Late Night.

Having worked for Conan as a researcher his first year on the air, it's kind of cool to see how far the man has come.

On assignment for the Winnipeg Free Press, I wrote the following story, which Morley Walker was nice enough to run on the front page of the Entertainment section on Saturday, Aug. 31, 1994.

As you can tell by the tone of the article, Conan as a TV entity did not seem long for this world. Working on the show, I met then-NBC President Bob Wright's daughter, Maggie, a very nice person who dished me the dirt on what was transpiring behind the scenes.

Maggie's stories were amazing: one time she actually started a story with, "Bill Cosby was over for dinner last night, and he said..." Bill friggin' Cosby was over for dinner? The rest of the story draws a blank for some reason.

Another of her stories sticks with me:

"They've offered Conan's job to Greg Kinnear," she told me one day. "If Greg Kinnear takes the job, Conan will be fired, along with all the staff." Yes, that's how close Conan came to losing his job in the first year.

And even after that year, NBC renewed his contract in three-month periods: an embarrassment to anyone at that level of the business.

So, on the eve of his taking over the Tonight Show, here's how I saw the situation 15 years ago (enjoy the idealism and the stories from a society on the verge of the Internet):
Red River grad finds working in late-night TV not all fun, glamor
By Kenton Larsen, Special to the Free Press

New York, Aug. 13, 1994 - Conan O'Brien's trademark out-of-control cowlick seems to be weighing heavily on his head this day.

Dressed casually in a white T-shirt and jeans, the host of NBC's Late Night stares into the monitor, yawns, and rubs his red eyes.

As a newcomer to the show, I wonder if O'Brien will make it through the rehearsal without falling asleep; the strain of hosting a late-night talk show five days a week is showing on his face.

He finally lowers his head onto his desk and moans.

Somehow, my job working as a researcher on the show isn't quite as funny as I'd expected.

Granted, it may be due to my being a showbiz novice, having just graduated from Red River College last June.

Or maybe I've been unduly influenced by watching the Dick Van Dyke show as a kid. But I thought TV variety shows required their employees to be endlessly witty, at work as well as home.

Perhaps it's the barrage of bad reviews that have pegged O'Brien's Late Night as unprofessional and aimless, and the persistent rumors of impending cancellation.

These rumors have become a fact of life around the office, adding to the poor morale that comes with guests cancelling at the last minute to do David Letterman's Late Show, and segments that have to be axed because they don't get laughs. Garry Shandling's talk show satire, the Larry Sanders Show, hits too close to home.

And to make matters worse, I soon realize that my dream of hanging out with Conan in the off-hours just isn't going to happen.

In the ninth-floor offices of 30 Rockefeller Plaza in midtown Manhattan, O'Brien is rarely seen. He almost never enters the offices through the main lobby, and his discussions with anyone not a producer are infrequent.

An accidental conversation

Every so often, I see O'Brien getting a drink from the staff's small fridge, but the matters of the day are left to his assistant/girlfriend Lynn Kaplan, who also carries the pained facial expression that comes from being under a lot of pressure.

From the moment I step into the offices, I sense there's an underlying, unwritten rule: don't speak to Conan unless he speaks to you first.

However, not long after I begin working on the show, I board an elevator, only to find myself alone with the man himself.

"Hi," says O'Brien.

"Hi," I reply.

"Do you work for me?"

" Yes."

"Where are you from?"

"Winnipeg, Canada."

"We have lots of fans up there," he says cryptically, before getting off the elevator.

That accidental conversation, as one person on the show tells me, is practically a relationship compared to the interaction most employees have with the self-professed star of the show.

How I got the job

Unfortunately, he never asked me how I got the job, which might be best described as dumb luck.

Sensing my job prospects in Winnipeg were non-existent, I mailed out my resumes to 10 of my favorite TV shows, on the off-chance that one of them might cheer wildly at the prospect at having a Winnipegger around to make fun of.

Out of the 10 shows, only O'Brien's and PBS's Frontline in Boston contacted me. After a quick flight down to New York for an interview, I found out the job was mine.

I quickly discovered that the title "researcher" encompassed much more than I originally thought. Once it meant running all over town looking for a poster of Frank Zappa sitting on a toilet.

Another time it meant tracking down a Barbie-like doll modeled after cover-girl Beverly Johnson. In both cases, the fruits of my labor went unused on the final show.

Researching also meant rubbing shoulders with honest-to-goodness celebrities like Harry Connick Jr., Ed McMahon, Cybill Shepherd, and Tom Arnold, to find out interesting and, hopefully, humorous stories about their lives.

Sometimes, little scraps of knowledge came in handy. Once, I learned that Canadian comedian/Kid in the Hall Scott Thompson was going to be on the show, and I remembered reading his account of meeting Imelda Marcos in Saturday Night magazine. One hour later, he was telling the story to Conan on the show. It felt good knowing that it would've never happened without my intervention.

Life at 30 Rock

O'Brien's invisibility around the office is also surprising, considering I see some of TV's biggest stars walking the hallway daily. Among them are Today Show hosts Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric, sportscaster Bob Costas, Nightly News host Tom Brokaw, and broadcasting legend Don Pardo.

Pardo, best known for being the announcer on Saturday Night Live, is especially willing to engage in conversation with anyone unlucky to make eye contact.

"That salad looks great," he says to me on the elevator one day, launching into one of his tedious, trademark showbiz stories. "When I first got started in the business..." Trapped!

If working on Late Night is lacking in the laughs department, it makes up for it with the "we've got a show to put on, and everything's going wrong" excitement that arrives daily, about one hour before show time.

Outside studio 6A, makeup artists work feverishly on guests, O'Brien's band, the Max Weinberg Seven, tunes up, last-minute script changes are rushed to the control room, and the 200 people who make up the studio audience are escorted to their seats.

That's inevitably when the last-minute glitches fire up.

On one occasion, Academy Award-winner F. Murray Abraham walks out on the show when he finds out the sketch in which he's scheduled to appear is bumped to the last, and least-watched, place on the show.

And recently, boxing promoter Don King showed up late, forcing the audience members, who are not allowed to leave their seats once in the studio, to listen to Louis C.K., one of the show's writers, do a lame stand-up comedy routine for half an hour. After running out of jokes, C.K. finally breaks down and sings an off-key rendition of the Kinks' "You Really Got Me," further befuddling the crowd.

During the show's taping, a number of O'Brien's staff gathers around a close-circuit TV. When O'Brien flubs the delivery of a joke, they roll their eyes and sigh with exasperation.

In the control room, producer Jeff Ross is not as subtle. In addition to rolling his eyes, Ross has been known to shout at O'Brien's image on the screen, bang his head against a wall, and feign death.

On one show, editors had to perform surgery on SNL castmember Ellen Cleghorne's segment, after she repeatedly defamed Jamie Lee Curtis, in addition to much of O'Brien's interview with Jenny McCarthy, Playboy's Playmate of the Year.

McCarthy sweated so profusely, editors had to take out any shots that included her armpit.

Despite these complications, the show always comes off, which is testimony to the staff, mostly made up of showbiz amateurs.

Their greenness is also responsible for the show's wildly experimental comedy, which ranges from funny to bizarre.

"There's a certain freedom when you're working on a show that no one watches," explains Late Night writer Marsh McCall to me one day, only half joking.

Perhaps the best thing about working on Late Night, as these anecdotes prove, is that it's a good reality check for anyone, like myself, who has ever romanticized show business.

When you get right down to it, it's only a job, and its employees are people with the same problems as all of us, their offices plagued with with the same personality conflicts and gossip you might find in any office.

When I'm back in Winnipeg, I'll have endless stories about the ridiculousness of show business and some super-cool memories of New York.

O'Brien and his staff, on the other hand, will still have to continue grinding out a show under the spectre of cancellation and poor reviews.

I'll take the memories.

What does "punch up the copy" mean?

Instructors have all been guilty of giving students "thoughtful" feedback that later turns out to have confused things more than if we'd have kept that feedback to ourselves.

At least part of this has to do with the very nature of "marking" and "giving feedback." Generally, you give more and better feedback when you start to mark than by the time you're finished, which is why I mark no more than five papers of any one assignment in one sitting; I'm all too aware of the temptation to say, "These all look great to me," give everyone an A+, and resume watching "my stories." How I love my stories!

This, in fact, is what "the lazy instructor" does, knowing that he or she will get few complaints from students after granting a high mark, but spending virtually no time actually "marking" their assignments. Ironically, it's the instructor who often takes the most amount of time to mark and give "real" feedback, who later needs to account for something he or she has said.

Advertising feedback

As an advertising instructor, I'm conscious of walking a very fine line between saying too much and saying too little when I give feedback. On one hand, it's really easy to pick apart an ad and offer ways to make it better. On the other, you can really crush someone's creativity by giving advice, or any mark, good or bad.

Further complicating the issue is that, in advertising, there are a million slangy ways to say, "Write better." Some of my favorites include: "Punch up the copy," "Not on strategy," and "Needs a rethink." There are a million more!

So today, a very hard-working and good-natured student asked me by e-mail, "What does "punch up the copy" mean, anyway?" and I had to think about it for a few minutes, before writing her back this essay, which she didn't ask for, but got anyway. If there's any justice, she'll return it to me with a grade!

Upon reflection, "punch up the copy" can mean a lot of things. And whether it has meaning to the person getting the feedback probably depends on a lot more than anything that I might have to say about it.

That said, here's what I wrote:

What does "punch up the copy" mean?

Just like the director who tells his or her actors to "act better," "punch up the copy" means (if you'll allow me to use it in an equally cheeky sense) "write better."

The instruction can be broad and sweeping at times, and more specific at others, depending on the assignment.

In the general sense, it could mean, "Oh, boy. We need to start from scratch here." In the specific sense, it might refer to something like having a great idea for an ad, but writing it so that some of the lines don't ring true, sound contrived, or aren't "on strategy."

So, even if the big idea is great, maybe there's room to "punch it up" so that the execution is more true to that idea.

When I use it to give feedback on assignments, it almost always means one - or more - of the following things. These, by the way, are really common things that pop up regularly in assignments in first-year CreComm:

1. "Make it active, not passive."

For instance: "Breakfast will be served" is passive, because it doesn't assign responsibility. "I will serve breakfast" is active, because it does. Active sentences are more interesting to read than passive. Passive sentences aren't grammatically incorrect, just boring and not as accurate.

2. "Get rid of typos."

3. "Don't be boring. And don't write copy that wouldn't work on you yourself."

Write something that you yourself would find interesting to read. If it sounds like dull ad copy that repeats things you see in every ad ("We strive to be the best department store in the tri-state area...blah blah blah"), then it won't work in yours.

Also see: "win-win scenario," "refreshments will be served," and "ample parking." Sigh.

4. "Aim for an economy of words"

If you can say it in three words, don't use 25 words to do it. In copy, it just means "make sure every word counts" and "cut out the fat."

5. "Make sure every piece of what you write is on strategy."

All parts of your ad (or whatever it is you're writing) should point in the same direction, or be "on strategy."

6. "Be consistent"

Use CP Style, so that your writing is always consistent, which is what makes you a professional writer over someone who, though he or she "speaks English," doesn't write professionally because he or she isn't familiar with "the rules" - like you.

7. "Have a distinct tone or point of view."

Your copy should always sound like you wrote it, not a machine. Inject "your humanity" into your writing, so that you have your own "style," and people relate to your words, just like they would to you as a person.

To see some great examples of this, visit the Washington Post website, and see how Tom Shales writes TV reviews. Or how Roger Ebert writes movie reviews at the Chicago Sun Times. Or how Maureen Dowd writes columns at the New York Times. Or how Sarah Vowell, David Rakoff, Stephen King, or insert your favorite writer here, write books.

8. "Know your audience, and write in its language."

9. "Spell check, edit, proofread, edit, proofread, edit, proofread, spell check. Repeat."

I give my essay a C+.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Barack logo rip-off or "breathtaking design strategy?"

Ask students to design a logo, and they'll each have one for you in about three minutes. Ask them to first write a strategy for it, and count the blank stares.

It's hard to settle the cognitive dissonance between the classroom's "done in three minutes!" with the real-world's "the client would like a 27-page PDF explaining why we should like and use the logo you designed for us."

But that, apparently, is what Arnell did for Pepsi in a document called, "Breathtaking design strategy." According to Advertising Age, this may have cost Pepsi over $1 million for the document alone.

Yipes - and this is for the logo that has been accused of being a Barack Obama "Change we can believe in" knock-off.

The document, which is all over the Internet, and is mocked on Gawker, explains the merits of the new Pepsi logo by chronicling over 5,000 years of design ("The origin and evolution of intellectual property"), "Gravitational pull," and "Applying universal laws to establish a blueprint for the brand."

Einstein shows up along the way, as does da Vinci, and even the Mona Lisa herself. I'll read the rest tonight; I'm looking forward to finding out whether Jesus, Darwin, and John Lennon show up as well.

The best thing about this is that it makes our Public Relations strategy assignment look like a walk in the park. Wait 'til next year!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Smithereens cover the Beatles

How great is this?

This is the Smithereens' best Beatles impression - with Pat Dinizio sounding virtually identical to his hero, Paul McCartney.

At his show in Winnipeg last weekend, Dinizio told a story about how he postponed his honeymoon, because there was a rumor that Paul McCartney would be at a party for which he had an invitation.

McCartney indeed showed up at the party, and Dinizio was in complete awe of him.

As Dinizio tells it, he leans over to Maria Elena, Buddy Holly's ex-wife, and says, "Can you believe it?! It's Paul McCartney right there."

And she replies, "Yeah, he's a fucking asshole."

And you thought the video was great.

69 Love Songs for your Valentine's Day listening pleasure

Ain't love grand?

The Magnetic Fields' 1999 release, 69 Love Songs, will make your Valentine's Day, especially if you're spending it alone with a sawed-off shotgun and a bottle of scotch (Glug-glug, bang-bang!).

While the Magnetic Fields have always been a good band, and lead singer Stephin Merritt has always been an intriguing songwriter, nothing that they ever recorded before this release even hinted that they had this kind of ambition in them:

Sixty-nine songs over three CDs, running the gamut from showtunes ("The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side"), jazz ("Love is Like Jazz"), Irving Berlin ("A Pretty Girl is Like...") to new wave ("Promises of Eternity"), country ("Sweet-Lovin' Man"; "Papa Was a Rodeo"; "Kiss Me Like You Mean it"), Gilbert and Sullivan ("For We Are the King of the Boudoir") and even numbskull punk rock ("Punk Love").

But 69 Love Songs is no mere novelty record; these songs are smart, witty, and tuneful. Lesser artists would kill for just one of Merritt's songs, of which "Acoustic Guitar", "I Don't Believe in the Sun", "The Book of Love", "Busby Berkeley Dreams", "The Way You Say Good-Night", "All My Little Words" and "Papa Was a Rodeo" are the standouts.

Typical lyrics, these from "Acoustic Guitar:"
Acoustic guitar, if you think I play hard
You could've belonged to Steve Earle
Or Charo or GWAR
I could sell you tomorrow
So bring me back my girl
Bonus points for namechecking Steve Earle, Charo, and GWAR! in the same song.

Merritt wrote these songs inspired by Stephen Sondheim and envisioned them being performed as a cabaret.

Sure, some of this stuff is campy, but that's part of what makes this collection so great - Merritt doesn't take himself, or it, too seriously. Great advice for any Valentine.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Pat Dinizio remembers the worst Winnipeg music promotion ever

Pat Dinizio plays Maria Elena, a song he wrote for Buddy Holly's ex-wife.

Pat Dinizio, lead singer of the Smithereens, played Times Change(d) yesterday.

It was a great show and reminder of how awesome a guy standing alone with a guitar can be, and - in the age of MTS Centre - that some of the best shows are still living-room sized.

Like Billy Bragg, Dinizio is also a great storyteller; the music is only half of the fun. One of his best stories last night reminded me of something I'd forgotten: that I'd seen Dinizio and the Smithereens play Les Rendez-Vous back in the early 80s.

Dinizio remembered that the band hadn't even released their LP in Canada yet, so the radio station that was promoting the show (I'm pretty sure it was CITI FM) offered attendees a refund if they "didn't completely love the band" after hearing four songs.

I remember it a bit differently: that you could get your refund within the first 15 minutes; either way, after the first few numbers, everyone started looking at the clock, and the door, to see if anyone would take the bait.

I recall that some people did, but it was nothing like the flood of cheapskates that one might have expected, especially given our reputation as being the cheapest people in Canada.

I'm glad that Dinizio remembered the goofball promotion, pretty fondly, actually, and made me remember it too. The worst Winnipeg music promotion ever?

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Can you find the guy on steroids in this picture?

I'm not much of a sports fan, but last year I happened to be in New York during the Major League Baseball All-Star Game.

I caught the parade with some pretty pumped New Yorkers, including a young woman who yelled and screamed until each baseball player looked at her and waved; then, she'd turn to her friends and say, "Who was that?" Great stuff.

The crowd gleefully taunted anyone who'd ever played for the Boston Red Sox or - even worse - had ever played for the Yankees and then left to play for the Boston Red Sox. Any player who had ever aired some kind of dirty laundry - steroids, affairs, whatever - was also taunted mercilessly.

So, then comes Alex Rodriguez in his flatbed truck, fresh off of his Madonna affair that busted up her marriage and his, and - surprise - everyone just cheered for the guy, so beloved is A-Rod in his hometown.

So, you know they're hurting in New York today on the news that A-Rod tested positive for steroid use in 2003, while he was playing shortstop for the Texas Rangers (something which he's always denied).

Now he's getting paid $275 million over 10 years to play for the Yankees and - kaboom - his brand is shot.

I wonder how he'll be greeted on the field this spring or at the next All-Star parade? "A-Fraud," anyone? I guess it still beats: "Who was that?"

Friday, February 6, 2009

Red River College: "Put a cork in it"

Don't drink and learn!

Red River College now has its own private wine label.

The wine is produced and bottled for RRC by Pelee Island Winery and is available at the Kenaston Wine Market in Prairie Lights Pinot Grigio and Shiraz.

In related news, I'm applying for a teaching position in Hospitality, where - clearly - they're gettin' it done.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Classic PR move: offer GWB a job as a greeter

Here's a PR classic: Dallas, Texas' Elliott's Hardware has offered George W. Bush a job as a greeter. The full story is here.

I love that Elliott's has created a mock "W" nametag ("is that W. for Welcome?") and includes "ample parking" as one of the job perks. Truly a "win-win-win-win-win-win scenario" for all concerned.

Glory, thy name is caterpillar cake

This isn't exactly a food/recipe website, but there's a first time for everything, right? Right!

If there's one thing that's true in life, nothing makes a communications professional get weaker in the knees and happier than a cake "baked" in the fridge and decorated to look like a caterpillar.

One box instant pistachio pudding mix
One container Cool Whip, thawed
36 chocolate wafers (one box)
Two licorice strings

In small bowl, make pudding mix; let it stand for five minutes. Spread one tablespoon of pudding mixture onto each chocolate wafer. On a large piece of tin foil, stack frosted wafers to form one long roll.

Spread Cool Whip over the top and halfway down sides of the roll. Wrap the roll in foil; refrigerate three to four hours.

Remove from foil; place on serving plate. Patch up "bald spots" with more Cool Whip. Use licorice strings to form antennae. Cut into slices. Magically, the wafers have formed a tasty cake! Now eat that caterpillar - eat him, I tell you!

Serves 12 people with full stomachs or one very hungry communications professional. Only use this recipe for good, and never evil.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

"Colleges shortchanged," says president of Red River College

There's an interesting editorial in today's Winnipeg Free Press, written by Red River College President Jeff Zabudsky.

Zabudsky says that at a time when university enrolment is dropping, colleges - and Red River College in particular - are "bursting at the seams."

Why then, asks Zabudsky, under the new stimulus package is there shared funding, with universities getting 70 per cent, and colleges getting 30 per cent?

He says:
"Red River College has proposed two "shovel-ready" infrastructure projects that would help address this capacity issue. The first is the redevelopment of the historic Union Bank Tower in Winnipeg's Exchange District into the Paterson GlobalFoods Institute, which will include overflow classroom space for our Princess Street Campus, a student residence and a teaching/research facility for our culinary and hospitality programs.

"That project will open up space at our Notre Dame Campus for the construction of a $57-million state-of-the-art Skilled Trades & Technology Centre, which will allow us to significantly increase the number of students and apprentices trained in areas like carpentry, welding, electrical and piping trades where we currently have sizable waiting lists."

As well, we know that Red River College has taken over the lease of the Massey Building from the University of Winnipeg, and has expressed interest in the Public Safety Building; in that scenario, the cops would move to the former Canada Post headquarters on Graham Ave.

Graduating in a recession

I agree with Zabudsky's thesis.

I graduated from CreComm in 1994, in the middle of a pretty bad recession, and I was very fearful that there would be nothing out there. I had quit a good-paying job in the financial industry in order to go to college and do something that interested me, and I had a lot riding on my ability to translate that move into hard currency, so no one would be able to tell me: "I told you so."

To my surprise, I found employment pretty quickly. While the job didn't pay very well, it was in the communications industry, gave me some pretty great experience, and beat singing karaoke every night, which is what most of my unemployed friends (OK, and me) were doing for "employment" at the time.

When I graduated from university, I had a very different experience. Jobs were plentiful, but I had no network, no profs who knew me by name (but for the awesome Professor Nielsen), and no specific "trade" on which I could focus my job search.

Here we are, 15 years later, and we find ourselves in a similar economic position. Virtually every week, the CreComm program gets a big stack of applications, most of whom are current or former university students looking for something that will get them employment.

If the universities get 70 per cent of the federal stimulus package, then all that means is that applications to Red River College will go up by 70 per cent in about two years or so. Why not just eliminate the middleman?

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The best Super Bowl ad is one-second long

As an advertising instructor in Canada, the Super Bowl has always been a bittersweet time: you know there are great ads being shown during the broadcast in the U.S., but as a Canadian viewer, you're stuck watching ads for Best Sleep Centre and Doug Dufresne.

This is owning to the CRTC's signal substitution rule:

"Signal substitution is done to bring millions of advertising dollars back into the Canadian broadcasting system. Advertising revenues are also what enable Canadian broadcasters to bring you programming such as the Super Bowl.

"When broadcasters buy programs from American and Canadian producers or networks, they pay for exclusive distribution rights in their home markets. The simultaneous substitution regulation, set out in the CRTC's Cable Regulations, is designed to protect those rights. These regulations permit Canadian broadcasters who purchase American programming, to use signal substitution as a means to earn advertising dollars."

Bummer. Or so I thought until I discovered that this rule doesn't pertain to HD signals. Sez the CRTC:
"It is the Commission's policy that a signal of a better quality should not be replaced with a lesser quality signal. This means that the signal of a non-Canadian broadcaster should only be replaced with that of a Canadian broadcaster where the Canadian broadcaster's signal is of the same or better quality than the non-Canadian one."
Woo-hoo! So, having no interest in sports whatsoever, I recorded the Super Bowl and did the opposite of what's slowly killing the broadcast industry: I fast-forwarded through the game and stopped to watch the ads.

One hour later, I not only knew the outcome of the game, I'd come to the conclusion that my favorite ad was a one-second "burst" from Miller (see above).

So, I could've finished with the game in one second, but then I wouldn't have wondered what Gen. Patraeus was doing flipping the coin at the start of the game (insert the Iraq joke of your choice here), and whether Bruce Springsteen has had plastic surgery, why his new song required a gospel choir, and why his crotch featured not once, but twice during key moments of the performance.

Super Bowl ad observations:

1. Movies really suck these days. The trailer for Pixar's "Up" looked intriguing. And maybe Star Trek. But I thought we were done with Vin Diesel.

2. Budweiser dropped about $10 million on spots, and now I'd really like a horse and dalmation for my birthday. The beer? OK, I guess that'll do.

3. 3D technology: over-promising and under-delivering for over 50 years (Sobe).

4. It's OK to show a guy getting hit by a bus if he lives (Doritos).

5. GE spends millions to sell us on "smart grid technology." So what the hell is it?

6. Coke Zero's Mean Joe Greene parody shows that even Coke is willing to drag its brand though the mud by mocking a classic ad that actually has meaning to people.

7. I liked the and spots, but wondered why - in the bad economy - the ads are for people who hate their jobs instead of people who have been laid off.

8. Denny's made me laugh with its "serious breakfast" spot. But I'm still not going to eat there. "If I wanted a big slam, I'd go to a..." Awww, forget it.

9. Pepsi Max is a diet soft drink for men. I don't know any men on a diet. A tear runs down the cheek of the first P of marketing...

10. Go Daddy and Doritos keep the flame of sexism alive. And Danica Patrick proves that she will clearly do anything for money (Go Daddy).

11. Conan O'Brien's Bud Light ad is pretty funny. And he apparently didn't get paid for it. But it reminded me that beer that comes from "overseas" is better than beer that comes from "overland."

12. Pedigree has a cool "adopt a dog" spot. But even more cool may be the behind-the-scenes videos posted on If the website would come back up...

I caught up to the end of the game pretty quickly and was surprised to discover that the last two minutes were actually pretty good. But not as good as the one-second Miller spot.

The best Valentine's Day album of all time

This is a review I originally wrote for; but - as NBC used to say - "if you've never seen it before it's new to you!"

ABC's the Lexicon of Love is the ultimate Valentine's Day album: a pop masterpiece, and a thinking man's disco party. That man is lead singer Martin Fry: a silver-tongued devil in a gold lame suit.

At first blush, the thing that stands out is Trevor Horn's production. Xylophones, glockenspiels, synths, a string section, cash registers, and probably a couple of kitchen sinks, are the order of the day.

The production is probably what got ABC (mistakenly) lumped in with Spandau Ballet and Wang Chung back in the day, which was maybe part of the joke. Fry's bitchy Vegas-singer-with-a-brain shtick points to satire, but it says something about the quality of the writing that these songs also pack an emotional wallop.

What makes this album so great for me is Fry's witty, sarcastic, and self-aware lyrics. "More puns and allusions than Elvis Costello had managed in a career," says Spin Magazine in its Alternative Record Guide.

ABC's 10 commandments of love:

Here's all the proof you need that lyrics really do matter:

1. "If you judge a book by its cover/then you judge the look by the lover."

2. "Look but don't touch in paradise/Don't let them catch you damaging the merchandise."

3. "Everything is temporary, written on that stand/Looking for the girl who meets supply with demand."

4. "I stuck a marriage proposal in the waste disposal."

5. "No I won't be told, there's a crock of gold/at the end of the rainbow. All the pleasure and pain, sunshine and rain/might make this love grow."

6. "Skip the hearts and flowers, skip the ivory towers."

7. "I get sales talk from sales assistants/When all I want to do, girl, is lower your resistance."

8. "When she's gone all I've got to learn/is the law of diminishing returns."

9. "The 12 disciples might kiss and tell/But you can tell me much more than they can."

10. "Then I say I love you, foul the situation/Hey, girl, I thought we were the right combination."

The big hits here are the Look of Love and Poison Arrow, great songs both, but for my money the overblown orchestrations of All of My Heart, the happy ca-ching of the cash registers on Date Stamp, the opening fanfare of Show Me, and the Mr. Roboto intro ("Evil!") on 4 Ever 2 Gether make these tracks the standouts.

ABC has never had an album as good as this one, but you should check out Be Near Me, Between You and Me, Ocean Blue, How to be a Millionaire, and 15-Storey Halo (on the underrated How to be a Zillionaire), When Smokey Sings (the band's tribute to Smokey Robinson from Alphabet City), and That Was Then, but This is Now (from the otherwise awful Beauty Stab).

For the best Valentine's Day shuffle playlist, I also recommend the Divine Comedy's Casanova and the Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs. Because the tastiest sweethearts are sour on the inside...

Zellweger talks Winnipeg on Letterman

Renee Zellweger showed up on the Late Show with David Letterman last week and talked about her time in Winnipeg while shooting that new movie that no one will remember a year from now (OK, it's called New in Town, but I had to look it up).

Though it may indeed be a charming romp, it has the distinct look of a "watch it to see Winnipeg locations and nothing else" feature like, say, Shall We Dance, and not a "watch it because it's actually good" feature like the Lookout or You Kill Me, both of which were shot here and truly rule.

In fact, if you ever find yourself sitting at the bar at the Round Table, just ask and the bartender will regale you with stories about the You Kill Me shoot - there are some good ones, including the story about the big fight that the owner of the pub had with the filmmakers after they accidentally unplugged some important chords.

Back to the Zellweger/Letterman interview: Winnipeg gets namechecked a lot, and even gets a round of applause upon first reference; but then we learn that it's cold here, with recipe ingredients hard to come by. Enjoy!