Friday, July 31, 2009

Rock of Ages: the ultimate musical for metal heads and straight dudes

"We built this CD on Rock N' Roll."

First, imagine your guiltiest of guilty-pleasure musicians and bands: Journey, Poison, David Lee Roth, Asia, Starship, and Night Ranger.

Then, imagine their so-bad-they're-great songs on a Broadway stage: "Any Way You Want it," "Every Rose Has a Thorn," "Just Like Paradise," "Heat of the Moment," "We Built This City," and "Sister Christian."

Now, imagine them performed by Constantine Maroulis of American Idol fame.

Imagine no more. It's not the unholy hard-rock nightmare that it first seems, it's more like heavy-metal heaven: Rock of Ages, the arena-rock jukebox musical, and soon-to-be film built around classic 80s rock.

As Variety points out, this should really suck. Yet, it also makes perfect sense: why see "Hair" on Broadway when you can see "big hair" on Broadway?

I got the soundtrack from yesterday, and I'm not even a little embarrassed to say that I listened to it for four hours - all the way to and from West Hawk Lake - and I'm still "lovin' every minute of it." Thank you, Loverboy (who, sadly, is not represented on the album).

The production walks a fine line between respect for and mockery of the hits, which is what makes it so fun: you could just as easily appreciate the music from a nostalgic perspective as you could laugh along with it for being so silly.

Recorded and mixed by Michael Barbiero, who did Guns N' Roses' best album, "Appetite for Destruction," the album happily doesn't go down the path of "Broadway rock" (say, for argument's sake, Angela Lansbury singing showtunes from "Rent"), but instead truly rocks in the best sense of the word.

In the album liner notes, writer Chris D'Arienzo explains the thought process:
"I'm gonna make straight dudes love musicals, dammit!!"
As a straight dude who loves musicals myself, I always wondered whether a musical would ever come along that wouldn't be embarrassing to say you loved: Rent came close, as did The Who's Tommy, but Rock of Ages may have finally hit the sweet spot.

"Chicks don't trust their heart or virginity to a guy who says he's straight but owns the "Annie" original cast recording," says D'Arienzo.

Mash-up heaven (isn't too far away)

The musical's storyline is secondary to the music; the narrative has something to do with a metal head who sweeps floors while awaiting rock stardom, only to have his chick stolen by the lead singer of a Poisonish band. Of course, our hero must win her back. And probably does.

There are snippets of stage dialogue interspersed with the songs; probably just enough to know what's going on, but not so much as to ruin one's enjoyment of the original hits.

All else you need to know is that one of the main characters is called "Sherrie," so there can be a Steve Perry moment in there somewhere: "Shoulda been gaw-awne!"

The happiest surprise is that many of the songs aren't performed "as is," but as metal mash-ups; some of them are so unexpected and great, you can't help but burst out laughing the first time you hear them.

Consider Starship's "We Built This City" as segued into Styx's "Too Much Time on My Hands." Or Quarterflash's "Harden my Heart" remixed with Pat Benatar's "Shadows of the Night." Or Joan Jett's "I Hate Myself For Loving You" alongside Asia's "Heat of the Moment."

And, finally, we get the two songs blended together that we always knew were the same song anyway: "Cum on Feel The Noize" and "We're Not Gonna Take it."

The funny thing is that I used to hate a good chunk of these songs when they were actually new releases; but, as the New York Times reviewer Charles Isherwood points out in his review of the musical, "Time can play appalling tricks on taste:"
“Don’t Stop Believing” and “Waiting for a Girl Like You” and “We Built This City” are not the musical equivalents of classic Bordeaux vintages, but I never would have guessed that wine coolers could age this well."
Bravo. That's the best explanation I've heard for owning an album with not one, but two Foreigner songs (and neither one being "Jukebox Hero").

Rock of Ages is good, clean heavy-metal fun; irresistible to metal heads and straight dudes everywhere, who may trade in their "We're Not Gonna Take it" stance for a little "Heaven Isn't Too Far Away." And is that really such a bad thing?

As Night Ranger once sang: "Motorin'!"

Listen to music samples at the official Rock of Ages site here. And just because it never gets old...the cast sings Journey at the Tony Awards:

Best parts: 1. "Michigan!" and 2. My new favorite dance move that happens when the girl sings, "midnight train." Get it? She's a train. Aww, forget it.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

What the iTunes taught me: a broken man's plea

It's the Divil. The Divil, I say!

I haven't been blogging as much lately, because I've been holding down a part-time job converting my CDs into digital files on iTunes.

The job pays nothing and is among the most boring, lonely, and frustrating experiences available to humankind on planet Earth. By the end of the experience, you don't just hate your music collection, you hate all music.

I converted my CDs into digital files once before, when iPods first appeared on the scene all those years ago - er, 2001. Barry Bonds was the home run king, Tom and Nicole broke up, Creed rocked the Billboard charts, and there was some bin-Laden thingamajig in New York or something.

I remember thinking that my iPod looked pretty futuristic and cool when I first took it to the gym. I'd been using a portable CD player, which skipped when I skipped and stopped running when I ran. It also weighed about 400 pounds, so the iPod seemed like a godsend in comparison.

And, like some of the best and most-successful products around, that first iPod contained a lot of mystery. Forget the Caramilk secret, the "what's in the iPod" question had me and my friends guessing for years.

For instance, why, when I put it on shuffle mode, would I get the Clash's "Police on my Back" right after the Police's "King of Pain?" It was like the iPod was daring me to look for connections in the music. "You're right, iPod! I do like songs by the Police or with the word "police" in them!"

Eight years later, when I look at that original iPod, I think, "What a clunky piece of junk." It not only doesn't play video or respond to my touch, but the screen constantly freezes, making it no function and all form: what I now have is not an iPod, but an expensive doorstop that looks like WALL-E's ladyfriend.

I've also lost my iPod innocence - sometimes The Monkees' "Daydream Believer" comes up after the New York Dolls' "Dance Like a Monkey," but I chalk it up to random coincidence rather than conspiracy. You gotta let some things slide...

Less is more is less, more or less

When I converted my CDs the first time, I took a "more is more" approach. I took every CD I owned at the time, and transferred each over in its entirety. I've always been more of a guy who likes albums over singles, and - at thousands and thousands of songs - I figured that I was good to go forever.

The problem: when you're at the gym, you want upbeat, lively music that energizes you; the Smiths may be perfect for a 2 a.m "poor me" session, but they're not so great for the rowing machine at 4 p.m. Although "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" does summarize my workout thoughts quite concisely.

As a recent iPhone owner, which I use for everything but phone calls, I figured I'd convert my CDs again, but this time have some method to my madness.

"What if," I wondered, "I condensed the playlist to my favorite 1,000 songs of all time?"

No longer would I guiltily skip over Brian Eno's "Music For Airports" on the treadmill; instead, I would do what the Ramones first set out to do with their songs, as described in the Spin Alternative Record Guide:
"What if you took only the giddiest peaks of your favorite songs, the second verse, which is the same as the first, in Herman's Hermits' "I'm Henry VIII, I Am," or the roller coaster screams in "Palisades Park" - and played them over and over? And what if you left everything else to Traffic fans to bother with?"
This flies in the face of most people's "more is more" philosophy that music's conversion to the intangible has created: no longer is there snob appeal in what you're listening to, because everyone has the same portable listening device. Instead, it's all about how many songs you've got on your iPod, iPhone, or iTunes.

I'd been down that road before. This time, it would be only the hits and the favorites. Simple.

Quality vs. quantity

Not really.

Part of the problem is the sheer number of CDs I have in my collection; I could easily construct a fortress of solitude out of them, and never interact with another human being again. Hey, sounds like a plan!

After I transferred over "just my favorites," which took me two weeks, my iTunes library sat at over 5,000 songs. So, I started the editing process. First, I considered which songs I'd want to have on me "at all times" - the desert island approach.

I consulted Rolling Stone's 500 greatest songs of all time to help me figure out which ones are truly essential. A funny thing happened: I started adding, not subtracting songs:

"Yeah, I should have Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog" in there, and Outkast's "Hey Ya!," and Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water..."

In a complete breakdown, I added five Sam Cooke songs. And, I brought back Bob Dylan's "Desolation Row," which hadn't made it through my first edit. At 2 a.m., I sat weeping over my laptop; I was like Debra Winger in Terms of Endearment: adding items into the grocery cart after the clerk told me that I couldn't afford the items I already had.

This approach clearly wasn't working, so I made "my personal favorites" the litmus test. I took no prisoners, editing out a lot of "classics" in some cases to make way for "guilty pleasures." So, Sam Cooke remained at three songs, but I could only cut down my favorite retro new-wave band, the Sounds, to four songs.

What kind of freak has more songs by the Sounds than Sam Cooke? I don't know, but that question tends to come up a lot in the morning, when I look at myself in the mirror.

What the iTunes taught far

After another three, painful edits, I have cut the songs down to 1789 - still, over 700 more than my goal.

I've memorized most of the songs in the list, I've looked at them so many times. I've lost the ability to judge the difference between a "good" and "bad" song. I'm tired of iTunes. I'm tired of music. Mostly, I'm tired of trying to decide whether the Beatles' "Happiness is a Warm Gun" is a better song than "I Want to Hold Your Hand."

And here's what I'm left with:

I've condensed the entire Beatles catalogue to just 35 songs. Elvis Costello is at 28 songs. Bob Dylan stands at a paltry 11 songs. The Clash are at 14, the same as the Who. Lou Reed has 18 songs, not including 10 by the Velvet Underground, his first band. The Rolling Stones were never one of my favorite bands, but that I cut their entire output to seven songs is outrageous to even me.

My favorite contemporary band is the Magnetic Fields, which sits at 29 songs, probably because their album, 69 Love Songs, has - you guessed it - 69 great songs on it, all of them quite short.

The Ramones are one of my favorite bands of all time. They sit at 10 songs. New-wave pioneers, Sparks, are well represented with 29 songs. The band has released a stunning amount of material over the years, and bucked the rock and roll trend by getting better with time. A lot of people hate Sparks, but if I'm true to the songs I love, that's how it plays out. How embarrassing.

While going through the CDs, I was regularly surprised by a band or album that sounded really great - way better than I remembered. So, it was particularly painful to cut Yo La Tengo to two songs, Big Star to 11, and Young Marble Giants to five.

One of my favorite punk bands, the Dictators, is reduced to two cover songs - "California Sun" and "I Got You Babe." Ugh. What the hell was I thinking?

In a bid to show that "diversity is the spice of life, I've also included a handful of my favorite TV themes (the original Bob Newhart Show, Rockford Files, Three's Company, etc.), some Schoolhouse Rock, and showtunes for good measure.

I love a lot of classic blues, gospel, and jazz, but I've left these out, partially because they work best as pieces of a full album, but also owing to some of the early blues records' poor recording quality, which is jarring when shuffled with "the hits of the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and today."

I recall making a mixed blues CD for a relative featuring Washington Phillips, Bessie Smith, and Robert Johnson. I was dismayed when she said, "I don't like it; it sounds like music from the Little Rascals." Ugh.

Now what? Help a broken man...

So, here I sit, broken by iTunes. I'm still determined to get the songs down to my original goal of 1,000 favorites, but not sure how to proceed, being a broken man and all.


1. Include only the songs that were released as singles.

2. Incorporate a three-song-per-band maximum.

3. Incorporate a three-song-per-band maximum with exclusions for the Beatles, Elvis Costello, the Who, and any other band that's been recording for more than 20 years.

4. Ditch anything that's not "rock and roll."

5. Throw my hands up in the air and get a life.

6. Insert your idea here.

In the meantime, you can find me running around the track at Kelvin School. I'm the guy with the portable CD player.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Ten things I learned at last night's Eagles of Death Metal show

Just one question: is the boy bad news?

Ten things I learned at last night's Eagles of Death Metal concert at the Ramada:

1. Bands singing about Cherry Cola make me thirsty for Cherry Cola.

2. Josh Homme is French for "Josh couldn't make it."

3. The Eagles would hate the Eagles of Death Metal.

4. Death-metal fans would hate the Eagles of Death Metal.

5. Mutton chops never go out of style.

6. Nor do falsettos.

7. When in Winnipeg, every band is legally obligated to cover the Guess Who, Burton Cummings, or Randy Bachman.

8. When I run into students at rock and roll shows, they all greet me the same way: "What are you doing here?"

9. Cowbells can be broken with drumsticks.

10. Asking "foxy ladies" whether "they came to party" results in mass cheering at a concert, but - unfortunately - nowhere else.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

They're baa-aaack: hack headlines produce unique, win-win scenarios!

Got headlines?

If you just groaned, you deserve a raise: that's a hack headline!

The Denver Egotist ("Helping Denver suck less daily") includes this headline in its list of 10 that an experienced ad-agency creative with team-leadership experience "should be shot" for using.

It's a great list, which includes such favorites as no headline, "size matters," "start your engines," and "think again."

There are a few I'd like to add to the list. Anyone who has taken the advertising class at Red River College with me knows that an electric pulse goes up my spine and explodes in my head any time someone uses "unique," "win-win scenario," or "they're baaa-aaack" in a headline.

There's no better way to prove you're the hackiest of hacks than by using any one of these, or better yet, all three in a headline, which is why clients always expect to see them: they don't know any better, and - ahem - "first idea equals worst idea."

As a trained ad writer, these should never ever never cross your mind, even when you're so desperate for creative that you're sucking your thumb and curled up in the fetal position under your desk. Which, by the way, sounds like a pretty great thing to get paid to do.

Some other classics to avoid, as written in the article talkbacks: "seriously funny," "experience (blank)," "can you say (blank)?," and "(blank) 2.0."

And now, I must uncurl myself from the fetal position, remove my thumb from my mouth, and get back to work. Hey: great headline!

Thanks to Britt for the link.

It's the synthesizers, stupid: the 80s make a comeback

Good thing I saved my skinny leather tie from my high school grad in 1985.

The latest edition of Q Magazine has not one but two articles in its latest issue announcing the return of the 80s; the issue is also notable for featuring a handful of articles about Michael Jackson that were written before he died in preparation of his British "comeback." Sample quote that takes on greater meaning after Jackson's death:
"Jackson can only prove he still has his old greatness by delivering in every moment of every one of his 50 shows. But on the evidence of the last four really wouldn't want to bet on it."
I'll say! Q Magazine apologizes for any offence, real or imagined, here.

In his great book, Rip it Up and Start Again, Simon Reynolds says that Michael Jackson was a precursor to the new-wave British invasion of the 80s:
"The backstory to New Pop was actually a black story. African American innovations in rhythm, production, and arrangement (the Michael Jackson/Quincy Jones sound) had been assimilated by the perennially quicker-off-the-mark Brits and then sold back to white America."
Just like the Rolling Stones sold back a commercialized version of "Chicago blues" to American kids in the 60s.

Jackson's death, ironically, reminded a lot of people how much they loved his - and everybody else's - hits in the early 80s, so this may be the time for musical artists to hark back to a simpler time, a time of hair gel, raised shirt collars, video game arcades, skinny leather ties, hopping up and down as a dance craze, and synth-pop about impending nuclear war (for my money, the best excuse to make out from any decade).

In the current issue, Q Magazine makes the case that 1989 (Beastie Boys, De La Soul, Stone Roses) was a better year for music than 1969 (Woodstock!), and notes that the most exciting music being made today owes something to such 80s mainstays as Kim Wilde, Patti Smith, Duran Duran, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and the decade's biggest new-wave star, David Bowie.

It makes sense. The artists in their 20s today were born in the 80s, so their first musical heroes were Bowie, Prince, Jackson, Madonna, Born in the U.S.A.-era Springsteen, and 1984-era Van Halen.

We all know that the best Springsteen is the same as the best Van Halen: the stuff their "true fans" pretends doesn't exist; it's the synthesizers, stupid! I'll take "Dancing in the Dark" and "Jump" over "Rosalita" and "Runnin' With the Devil" any day.

And in these tough, economic times in which the Cambridge police act "stupidly" (thank you, Barack Obama), couldn't we use some more silliness in our music? Some more novelty records? Some more catchy choruses? Some more guilty pleasures? Some more synth anthems?

C'mon Springsteen, we know you have it in you...and while you're at it, consider thundering drums, a string section, angelic background vocals, and trumpet fanfares. And, no, I don't care if your next project is a Pete Seeger tribute.

The great American punk-rock band, the Minutemen, once asked the musical question, "Do you want new wave, or do you want the truth?" I can't handle the truth, so I'll take new wave, please.

Key songs from the 80s, and their modern-day equivalents:
  • 80s Hit: The Buggles, "Video Killed the Radio Star"
  • 00s Equivalent: Epoxies, "Stop Looking at Me"

  • 80s Hit: Blondie, "Call Me"
  • 00s Equivalent: The Sounds, "No One Sleeps When I’m Awake"

  • 80s Hit: Depeche Mode, "Just Can't Get Enough"
  • 00s Equivalent: Neon Neon, "I Told Her On Alderaan"

  • 80s Hit: Frankie Goes to Hollywood, "Welcome to the Pleasuredome"
  • 00s Equivalent: Empire of the Sun, "Standing on the Shore"

  • 80s Hit: Pat Benatar, "We Belong"
  • 00s Equivalent: Ladyhawke, "Dusk Til Dawn"

  • 80s Hit: Eurythmics, "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)"
  • 00s Equivalent: La Roux, "Bulletproof"

  • 80s Hit: Madonna, "Express Yourself"
  • 00s Equivalent: Lady Gaga, "Poker Face (extended dance version!)"

  • 80s Hit: Cyndi Lauper, "Girls Just Want to Have Fun"
  • 00s Equivalent: Robyn, "You Can’t Handle Me"

  • 80s Hit: Soft Cell, "Tainted Love."
  • 00s Equivalent: Patrick Wolf, "The Magic Position"

  • 80s Hit: Prince, "When You Were Mine"
  • 00s Equivalent: Of Montreal, "Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse"

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The mystery meter at Red River College's downtown campus

INTERACTIVE MAP: Winnipeg's most-ticketed parking meters - Winnipeg Free Press

Don't follow leaders, watch the parking meters. OK, Bob.

The Winnipeg Free Press has an interactive map of the most-ticketed parking meters in the city in today's edition.

Number 16 on the list at 414 tickets is close to Red River College on the East side of Princess between Elgin and William.

I'm not familiar with a meter on this side of the college - isn't that the bus stop? I wonder if it isn't just cars that are parked or stopped illegally in the bus zone, or is the map just outright wrong? It certainly doesn't show up in this picture in the Uniter, taken by CreComm grad Mark Reimer.

Any ideas?

On a related note, I've paid my fair share of tickets this year parking on Adelaide Street between William and Bannatyne; the main culprit has been those awesome "new meters," which don't allow you to plug them one second before 9 a.m. My classes start at 9 a.m. on the nose. So, my choice is to arrive late to teach or take my chances with getting a ticket.

How about a 15-minute window to "pre-plug" the meter before 9 a.m.? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

Live From New York: it's my favorite book about comedy!

I've never much cared for Saturday Night Live.

There, I said it.

Sure, there have been exceptions, like the four seasons featuring Eddie Murphy - "SNL's Elvis," as Chris Rock calls him.

But for a Canadian growing up on SCTV, Monty Python, and Kids in the Hall, SNL never quite seemed to be all there: one-joke premises beaten into the ground week after week, actors trying too hard to be cool instead of funny, sketches that ended when the applause sign came on, not when they reached a satisfying emotional climax, and so on.

So, it comes as a surprise to even me that my favorite, time-tested book about comedy is Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller's Live From New York: An Uncensored History of SNL. I've read it once a year since it came out in '02, and continue to get stuff out of it that I forgot or missed the first five or six times 'round.

Keeping exposition to a minimum, Shales and Miller let the players speak for themselves, and the result is the best comedy primer out there. It also dishes a lot of insider dirt. As talkbacker John S. Harris says, "This is better than an E! True Hollywood Story any day."

The first thing that you notice when you pick up the book is that it's damn heavy. The sheer volume of quotations that Shales and Miller have compiled is truly worthy of the "exhaustive oral history" moniker; the book is jam-packed with insider information and juicy gossip, and - best of all - it's not just a celebration of the show.

Take these quotes from the book:
"I think it was just such a miserable experience that I have sort of blacked out a lot. That whole year, I was just embarrassed," says Chris Elliott of his year-long experience on the show.
"It was a Maalox moment every five minutes. I had irritable bowel syndrome every day. My drinking just got out of hand. I would credit SNL with being very instrumental to some bad habits that certainly increased. I wanted to quit after the first week," says Janeane Garofalo in a typical SNL-bashing quote.
I quote Elliott and Garafalo not only because I like 'em as funny people, but because they both never really made it on SNL, despite already being successful comics beforehand. Also because I was working at 30 Rock at the same time they were SNL castmembers, and I was miserable much of the time too.

When things were slow, I'd take the elevator up to the SNL floor to wander around and see what was going on, and - more importantly - make free, long-distance phone calls on any unmanned phones I'd come across.

In my travels, I'd occasionally get a glimpse of one of the SNL stars in the hallway (I saw Adam Sandler once and, um, NBC anchor Tom Brokaw), look at the photographs of the SNL alumni hanging in the hallway, and pose for photos in the SNL studio when no one was looking:

I'm shooting here!

While I may never have much cared for SNL, there's no denying that old-school, live-TV-excitement vibe that radiates from Studio 8H, even when the show isn't in production.

Lorne Michaels: all-powerful, inscrutable, Canadian!

I always just assumed that everyone at SNL was having a party and getting paid for it while I wasn't.

In fact, it may be only show creator Lorne Michaels who is livin' the life of Champagne wishes and caviar dreams, on the back of everyone else's misery. The book casts Michaels as an all-powerful father figure to the castmembers, loved by some, feared by many, and inscrutable to all.
"Lorne and I stopped speaking. It was during the second year," says former castmember Jane Curtin. "Lorne doesn't deal with issues, so I thought, well, this is pointless, I'm not going to talk to him anymore."
"Lorne a snob? Sure he's a snob," says writer Tom Davis. "He's a starfucker of the highest order. But you have to get past it."
Michaels himself is interviewed extensively in the book, but - unlike Citizen Kane - there's no Rosebud, so at the end of the book, we don't necessarily feel like we understand Michaels more than we did at the beginning. Which is the point.

Whether Michaels aims to be inscrutable or it just happens by accident is anyone's guess. However, it may be telling that it's a Michaels impression that Mike Meyers is doing when he plays "Dr. Evil" in the Austin Powers movies - which Meyers has been accused of stealing from castmember Dana Carvey.

Bill Murray offers the most amusing take on Michaels raison d'etre:
"Part of it's because he's an alien, you know - a Canadian. They have sort of like British echoes they have to fulfill. They have to go to Wimbledon and they have to do stuff like that we Americans don't really feel anything about."
Waiting for Murphy

The big star of the book is, ironically, the one notable person who didn't agree to be interviewed: SNL's biggest star, Eddie Murphy. As a result, the book at times becomes a bit like "Waiting For Godot" with Murphy in the title role.

Shales has said that it's still his dream to interview Murphy for an upcoming edition of the book, but it doesn't look good, as Chris Rock says in the book:
"(Murphy) won't talk to anybody about the show. He's done with it. He's not bitter about it, he loves it. He totally credits the show.

"I don't want to speak for him, but I think he does get pissed when they make fun of him, only because the show would have gotten canceled if he hadn't been there. There would be no show.

"(John) Belushi didn't have a movie as big as Trading Places, and that's not even Eddie's biggest movie. Blues Brothers is not as big as 48 Hours. It's not. Animal House had a cultural impact, but Belushi's not the star of Animal House, he's the breakout guy. It was still an ensemble; he was the best of the ensemble. Eddie Murphy's a star, man."
The interesting thing about Murphy's success is that it's all attributable to his own hard work: at age 18, he gets an audition on the show only after pestering an SNL talent coordinator from a pay phone. He kills at his audition, but only becomes a "featured player" on the show, because then-producer Jean Doumanian likes another actor, Robert Townshend, better.

Murphy gets relegated to the sidelines for a season, but gets his big break when a show comes up 15 minutes short and he's asked to fill the time with the piece he did for his audition. The piece kills, and he becomes the biggest star in SNL history, with all the trappings of fame: million-dollar cheques, an entourage, and sadly, death threats.

The villain: Chevy Chase

A book is only as good as its villain, and this book has a good one in Chevy Chase, the first season's biggest star. Although he comes off as a thoughtful, regretful guy in his interviews, he appears to be universally despised by anyone who has ever worked with him.

After leaving SNL after the first season to become a movie star, Chase comes back in the second season to host the show, and Bill Murray punches him in the face moments before the show goes to air.
"I was probably a little too full of myself," says Chase. "Maybe I'd been somewhat of an asshole."

"I don't know Bill Murray, but he's screaming, you know, foaming at the mouth, "Fucking Chevy," and in anger he says, "Medium talent!" says director John Landis, who witnessed the bust-up.

"When you become famous, you've got like a year or two where you act like a real asshole. You can't help yourself. It happens to everybody. You've got like two years to pull it together - or it's permanent," says Bill Murray.
The chapters dealing with the deaths of John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Chris Farley, and Phil Hartman are worthy reminiscences of some of SNL's most talented cast members (maybe Billy Joel was right), and it's nice to see the book give weight to cast members who never made much of their time on the show, like Chris Rock, Chris Elliott, Anthony Michael Hall, Jim Belushi, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

What the book really gets right is what I hope Judd Apatow's new "Funny People" movie gets right: what it's like to be a comic working in a high-stress environment with other stand-up comics, all desperate to make a name for themselves.

It's laughs sometimes, but it's mostly competition, gossip, backstabbing, jealousy, and sour grapes. Great comedy - and books - are made of these.

If you like this book, you might also be interested in Jay Mohr's "Gasping for Airtime: Two Years in the Trenches at Saturday Night Live" in which he reveals running home during the show after he has a panic attack, and being so desperate to appear on the show that he plagiarizes another comic's act.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Will you do your part in the Donut Wars?

They're both tasty and nutritious...can't they just get along?

The Canadians are coming, the Canadians are coming!

My first hint that something's up in Manhattan this week was when a relative visiting from New York knew all about Tim Hortons setting up shop in Manhattan, where it's very easy to get distracted and notice nothing.

The second hint was when I read yesterday's New York Times; of course, the press in Canada covered this news item, as it is legally obligated to do with any information about Timmy Ho's, but I hadn't realized how the American press had considered it to be akin to a Canadian invasion: the Donut Wars!

While the article in question isn't about Tim's vs. Dunkin's per se (Headline: "Fois gras palates, hot dog pocketbooks"), it uses the Tim Hortons "controversy" as its lead:
“The donut wars,” several blogs and news organizations called them, as if a platoon of cinnamon crullers were advancing on a phalanx of glazed. The dispatches from the front were numerous — and impassioned. This was clearly a contest of the utmost consequence.

"It pitted Tim Hortons, a Canadian doughnut leader, against Dunkin’ Donuts, an American one. Last weekend, Hortons invaded Manhattan, displacing a dozen Dunkin’ stores and girding for battle with the rest.

"But while this development could have been covered and discussed merely as a business story or even a parable of international comeuppance, it was almost instantly analyzed in epicurean terms. Which of the two fast-food chains fried a finer circle of dough? And how did the Hortons nuggetlike Timbit stack up against the shrunken Dunkin’ Munchkin?"
Good questions!

I'm intimately acquainted with both fine establishments: I work at Red River College's downtown campus in Winnipeg, where eating at Tim Hortons six times a day is not only a rite of passage, but a way of life.

And I used to live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where there was a Dunkin' Donuts not more than a 10-minute walk up Mass. Ave. from our house.

I can't say I've ever noticed a difference in the quality of the donuts, though I do recall the Dunkin' Donuts being in major need of a wipe with a moist towelette. Not the donuts themselves, but the entire establishment, from top to bottom, starting with the staff.

Powder-sugar smackdown

Researching the sources laid out so helpfully by the New York Times, in addition to some of my own, here's how the battle looks so far:

1. New York Daily News

The Result: The Daily News gives the edge to Tim Hortons, which wins by a six-to-five margin among tasters in Times Square.

Key quote: "It's from Canada? Wow, they are making good doughnuts."

2. Urbanite

The Result: Urbanite gives the edge to Tim Hortons, by a five-to-three margin.

Key quote: "Tim Hortons is most famous for its coffee, and tasting it yesterday, we think it could really give Dunkin’ and Starbucks a run for their money."

3. Time Out New York

The Result: A rout; 11 out of 16 people preferred Dunkin' Donuts.

Key quote: “I don’t care if it’s from Canada,” said Steve Cianciotto, “as long it’s not from Jersey.”

4. Diner's Journal

The Result: No clear winner or overall quality advantage. Tim's has a better cruller, Dunkin's has a better chocolate frosted.

Key quote: "Mass-produced doughnuts are achieving total global mediocrity."

5. Food Mayhem

The Result: A terrible experience with Tim's customer service leads to Dunkin' winning by a slim margin.

Key quote: "Really they both lose because we’ll never buy doughnuts or coffee from either one again. They both suck!"

6. Brokelyn

The Result: Tim's has a slight edge in the honey glazed, Dunkin's has the edge in the old-fashioned category. Still, when pressed, this blogger gives it to...Peter Pan Donut. Huh?! Next time I'm in Greenpoint, I'll have to give it a try.

Key quote: "It turns out Tim Hortons doesn’t stock a jelly donut, which is one more reason to eye Canadians with suspicion."


By my calculations, it looks like a draw.

However, if Salisbury House ever opens in Manhattan, McDonald's had better watch out; I'm pretty sure Burton Cummings could take Ronald McDonald in a cage match brawl...anyway, time's a-wastin'.

Must. Eat. Donuts.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

How to be a shameless, online self-promoter: Wired

Julia Allison from Wired: she's famous; she told Wired so herself.

Being "Internet famous" is a little like being "Canadian famous" in that it usually means that you're one step away from being in a witness relocation program.

Indeed, when one of my classes put together an online promotional plans for Breakfast Television last semester, we agreed that the thing that TV still offers people that the Internet does not is "fame."

Now, according to Wired, that might that be changing too. In this article, Wired profiles Julia Allison, who "can't act, can't sing, and isn't rich. But as a genius for self-promotion, she's become an Internet celebrity."

In advertising, we used to say that no amount of promotion or advertising will sell a product for very long if the product isn't any good. I think that might be what we're dealing with here. However, she seems to be making it work by being equally loved and loathed, which is something that a lot of successful products have in common.

Nonetheless, if you want to be an Internet celebrity, the article outlines the steps you must take, including:
  • Getting your picture taken next to famous people.
  • Dressing against type.
  • Being enigmatic.
  • Letting your minions fight your battles.
  • Being a hot exhibitionist.
They had me until I found out that I have to be hot as well. Sigh.

Are you Internet famous?

And here's the great thing: when it's all over, you can type your name into Wired's Vanity Validator to see how famous you are online in relation to others.

Created by Wired editor Chris Anderson, the gadget scans the Web to measure how famous you are on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 100 (crazy famous). I'm a 50 and my blog is a 49, which seems too famous to me, but I'll take it.

I can't import the gadget, so to use it, just click on this page, and scroll down to the middle. If you score low, just remember the immortal words of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard:

Ebert takes a page from comedy writing class

Insert hilarious caption here.

I teach comedy writing at Red River College.

Now that you've stopped laughing, I'm happy to point out that Roger Ebert - film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, has taken a page out of comedy writing class by offering a full analysis of the New Yorker's Cartoon Caption Contest.

Mainly, Ebert's miffed that he's been entering the magazine's contest weekly since it began, and has never even been a finalist.

He says:
"I have done more writing for free for the New Yorker in the last five years than for anybody in the previous 40 years.

"It's not that I think my cartoon captions are better than anyone else's, although some weeks, understandably, I do. It's that just once I want to see one of my damn captions in the magazine that publishes the best cartoons in the world. Is that too much to ask?"

It isn't.

Because for the past three or four years, I've begun the comedy writing class by handing out a randomly selected cartoon from the caption contest, giving the students 15 minutes to come up with a hilarious caption, then having them present it in front of the class.

In some ways it gives the students an unfair advantage: delivery is a big part of any joke, and no one else who enters the magazine's contest gets a chance to deliver the joke out loud and in person.

In other ways, it's torture: comedy writing is hard, especially under pressure. And what's hilarious to you might not be as hilarious to other people. And it's really, really hard to get up in front of people to say anything when the expectation is that you will make them laugh.

But when you compare captions written by 40 students, you very quickly realize which ones are "too obvious" (if five or more people come up with the same caption, that's usually a sign), "too oblique" (the only people who'd laugh at the joke wear monocles and top hats), or "too dirty" (I stopped handing out the cartoon of the doctor examining the giant hand - too many giant penis jokes, I'm afraid).

As well, in comedy writing class, we're all "comedians." As Billy Crystal is wont to point out, the biggest "laugh" you can ever get from another comedian is to have him listen to your joke and offer the deadpan response: "Funny."

Now, Ebert is upping the ante:
"The first contributor of a post to this blog to become a finalist in the New Yorker competition will win, in addition to the fame and glory of seeing their caption in print, a shiny new dime. That's ten cents more than the New Yorker will give you. We pay postage."
That's 10 cents U.S., my friends. The caption contest is open to all Americans and Canadians, except for people who reside in Quebec. Funny.

Your challenge:

Thursday, July 16, 2009

"God bless them Beatles for what they done"

Let it Be meets the Beatles' first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.

An older but energetic Paul McCartney made a triumphant return to the Ed Sullivan Theatre last night, where he rocked Broadway atop the Late Show with David Letterman marquee.

There was clearly an excited vibe among the Late Show audience last night - even Bruce Willis showed up to do a Top 10 list, "just to meet Paul McCartney." And Letterman came off as an excited, nervous schoolboy - perhaps the only time I've seen him like that on the show.

"When we were kids, we would go to the school library and look up all the information we could find on the Beatles," Letterman said to a bemused Paul, who - as always - spoke about "the four lads who shook the world" in stride.

When Letterman asked him why he'd never been on the Late Show before, McCartney joked, "Because I don't like the show."

Chris Farley's famous SNL sketch with McCartney came to mind: "Member when you were with the Beatles? That was awesome!"

First and last and always

It must be depressing to be a musician and to consider that no matter what you write or record, or how famous you become, you will never be as great as the Beatles. They did it first, and they did it best.

My bible, the Rolling Stone Album Guide, gives 15 of the Beatles' albums a four-and-a-half or five-star rating, and neatly summarizes their influence:
"They invented the idea of the self-contained rock band, writing their own hits and playing their own instruments. They invented the idea that the world's biggest pop group could grow up into arty, innovative musicians. For that matter, they invented the idea that there was any such thing as the world's biggest pop group. They also invented drugs, beards, bed-ins, India, concept albums, round glasses, the Queen, breaking up, and vegetarians.
Not bad for a start. Then, there's the music:
"The Beatles left behind more great music than anybody can process in a lifetime. Sheer abundance is part of their story: Life with the Beatles means vaguely disliking a chestnut like "Nowhere Man" or "Blackbird" for years until it sneaks up and gets into your blood for good.

"Just check out "I Want to Hold Your Hand," which explodes out of the speakers with the most passionate singing, drumming, lyrics, guitars, and girl-crazy howls ever - it's an insult to the Beatles to say they never topped this song, because nobody else has either, although the lads came pretty close themselves with "You're Going to Lose That Girl." It's the most joyous three minutes in the history of human noise."

To this day, the best test to see if a person is deserving of your companionship is the simple question, "Do you like the Beatles?" If the person says, "No," or - even worse - "I like the Beach Boys better," run for your life.

Conversely, you can also ask, "Do you love Jar Jar Binks?" And if the person says, "Yes," same deal.

The Beatles mystery

I credit the Beatles with the reason I love music (and life?) so much today. Sorry, Mom, it wasn't the piano lessons.

In grade eight, when time isn't so valuable a commodity, I used to lie on the floor with the headphones on, mostly listening to my Mad Magazine floppy vinyl records, like "It's a Super Spectacular Day," which played a different ending each time you played it, depending on which groove the needle hit. Clever.

One day, the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club album cover caught my eye. What the hell was this? Was it the Beatles? Another band covering the Beatles? A greatest hits? What did this have to do with "I Wanna Hold Your Hand?" Why was Bob Dylan on the cover?

Julian Cope talks about having a similar experience in his excellent book Japrocksampler. As a kid, he puts on the Beatles' 45 of "I Saw Her Standing There," and Paul yells out the opening line: "She was just 17, if you know what I mean..." And Cope thinks to himself, "No, I don't know what you mean."

One of the things that's missing from music today is that mystery; you can e-mail Gwen Stefani, and you might even get an e-mail back. All of the musicians' personal information is posted on MySpace ad nauseam. If you hang around after a show, the odds are really high that you'll meet the band and get an autograph.

Back then, the mystery is part of what sold the music. When I listened to the Beatles, I couldn't even conceive of them as human beings living on the same planet as me; music this good must've come from more intelligent beings from another dimension!

Back to Sgt. Pepper: I listened to it until the grooves wore out, and my life was never the same again. Soon after, I went to see "Beatlemania" at the Winnipeg Concert Hall - a lame version of the Beatles, but as close as I would come until Paul McCartney played the Stadium on May 23, 1993.

Or as I call it, "the day that God came to Winnipeg."

The weather was perfect - the Beatles being God, they can control the weather - and I'll never forget the awe I felt when McCartney hit the stage. "Holy crap: this is the guy who played the Ed Sullivan Show. And who wrote "Yesterday" and "Hey, Jude." And once stopped at the Winnipeg airport with the Beatles, because the plane needed refueling."

Probably the greatest moment of my life was belting out "Penny Lane" with Paul McCartney at the Winnipeg Stadium, beer in hand (me, not Paul). Sure, everyone else was singing along too, but to me it was a duet, and I won't let anyone burst my bubble.

I should also point out that the lamest controversy of the show was drummed up in advance, courtesy of Peter Warren and CJOB radio, who heard that Sir Paul was showing a short anti-animal testing video before the show, which featured some quick shots of animal abuses.

The big question on CJOB that day, "Will you walk out of the concert during the video?" Wah, wah, wah. Yeah, I'm going to walk out on a Beatle because you told me to do it, local radio star. Then again, I did go to Portage and Main when the Jets were leaving town, and I'm not even a hockey fan. OK, we're even, CJOB.

The day after the stadium show, I went to Polo Park to buy the one Beatles CD I didn't own ("Yellow Submarine" - yuck), and the place was packed with people who attended the concert the night before, buying up as many Beatles CDs as they could carry. This was 1993, almost 40 years after the Beatles played the Ed Sullivan Show. Amazing to consider, especially in the era of the free download.

A world without Beatles?

But seeing McCartney on Letterman yesterday reminded me that there will soon be a planet Earth on which no Beatles will exist. That will be a dark day indeed. Because Paul and Ringo have lived into comfortable old age, it's not likely that when they die we'll see the public grief that we saw with the death of Michael Jackson or John Lennon, for that matter.

But when the media asks "Will there ever be someone as famous as Michael Jackson?" I have to laugh. The world already has someone as famous as Michael Jackson: Paul McCartney and the Beatles before him.

The world will never see the likes of them again, unless some super-intelligent aliens from another dimension appear and blow us away with something better. Until then, I'll take Sgt. Pepper.

In the song below, Daniel Johnston - pays tribute to the Beatles in his own, inimitable basement tape.

"God bless them Beatles for what they done!"

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Winnipeg Fringe Fest: remember, it's the reviewers who suck

Kids enjoy watching a Fringe reviewer fall off the stage.

As someone who loves live theatre, I really enjoy the Winnipeg Fringe Festival.

But as a veteran performer of six Fringe Festivals, I can't look at a Winnipeg Fringe Fest poster without feeling mildly nauseous. To borrow a line from Chris Rock, I look at the Fringe Festival as "the uncle who paid your way to college...but molested you."

Of course, the Fringe Fest is a lot of fun on its face: there's a beer tent in Old Market Square, teeming with people having a good time, after all. But take a closer look, and you'll see that they're mostly all performers, actors, musicians, and comedians. Laughing on the outside, crying on the inside. Drinking to forget.

For any performer, the Fringe Fest is a true test of wills. It takes a hell of a lot of work to set up a Fringe show: producing the advertising, staging the show, rehearsing, and dealing with the other actors, volunteers, venue owners, and tech crew. By the time the audience files into the venue, it suddenly hits you: oh, crap, we're putting on a show!

So, you do it, because there are people there, they've paid $5, and - being Winnipeggers - want $50 worth of entertainment. You put yourself out there, and give it your all. You sweat, bleed, and cry (just like Blood, Sweat and Tears did!).

Some nights it works. Some nights it doesn't. And these are the nights the reviewers show up to "reward" you for all of your hard work.

Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney never had it so tough.

Reviewing the reviewers

You don't realize how little reviewers know and how (pardon me) "bullshit" their reviews actually are until you yourself are reviewed. And I say that as someone who has got everything from two stars to four stars at the Fringe. I disagreed with all of them, even the good ones.

As the old saying goes, "Opinions are like arseholes - everyone has one, but no one wants to hear it."

With that in mind, here are the different kinds of reviews this year's Fringe Fest performers can expect from the local media," proud supporters of the Winnipeg Fringe Festival:"

1. The informed review

There is such a thing as an "informed" review, where the reviewer knows a lot about what you're doing and comes to an opinion based on what they know. These reviews are OK; though you might disagree with the opinion, it's hard to fault an informed person with what they think about something they've experienced.

Unfortunately, there are a shortage of reviewers and reporters kicking around most media outlets, so they instead hire people with nothing to do over the summer to help them out. Maybe they're writers. Maybe they're critics. Or maybe they're just unemployed because the Pan Am pool wasn't hiring life guards this summer.

The Winnipeg Sun, for instance, put out a call recently for people who would like to review Fringe shows. The problem, of course, is that most anyone isn't an informed reviewer. Which means we're stuck with the next, big category of reviewers most of the time.

2. The uninformed review

Probably the worst review I ever had was just two years ago (and no, I'm not linking to it. Ha!). A young reporter from the Free Press came to see our little comedy show at the King's Head and, quite simply, didn't get what we were doing.

I know that humor is subjective. And I don't expect everyone to find my jokes hilarious, or to even like me as a person. But this reviewer said that I had no punchlines. Uh...that's just not correct. As someone has performed stand-up comedy for over 10 years, I can say that I know a punchline when I see one. You may not like my punchlines, but they're there.

To the uninformed reviewer who says, "It's just my opinion," I give you Roger Ebert, defending his Transformers review:
"So let's focus on those who seriously believe "Transformers" is one of the year's best films. Are these people wrong? Yes. They are wrong.

"I am fond of the story I tell about Gene Siskel. When a so-called film critic defended a questionable review by saying, "after all, it's opinion," Gene told him: "There is a point when a personal opinion shades off into an error of fact. When you say 'The Valachi Papers' is a better film than 'The Godfather,' you are wrong."

"Quite true. We should respect differing opinions up to certain point, and then it's time for the wise to blow the whistle."
3. The biased review

Why don't music reviews ever work in a college newspaper? Because all the reviewers review their favorite bands and, by definition, give them the highest rating.

"This Monster Magnet CD will totally change the world!" Only for you, reviewer.

Sometimes this rears its ugly head at the Fringe. The gay critic goes to the gay-themed play and - surprise - loves it! Or, the heavy-metal guy goes to a children's musical and - surprise - hates it.

It is possible for reviewers to be aware of their biases and reveal them in their reviews, but this rarely happens.

4. The grudge review

The Free Press' Morley Walker really hates local improv group the Crumbs. At least that's what the Crumbs think. And each year, their show becomes an improv version of "Waiting For Godot," with Morley playing the role of Godot. Will he be back this year? Will he hate us again? Should we ban him from the performance? Etc.

The reviewer is likely aware of this, since it plays into his or her ego and belief that "I'm changing the world with my reviews." Which means that the review is usually about the grudge, not the actual performance.

5. The friend-reviewed-my-show review

This is a local variation on the biased review. Winnipeg is a small place, and local reviewers constantly review shows starring their friends, usually forgetting to mention it in their reviews.

This has happened to me a lot. I've always been in a stand-up comedy show, and the person reviewing the show for the CBC is usually a stand-up comic, with whom I'm friends.

Usually, this leads to the review being very, very positive. When you get a great review from a friend, though, it's like getting a kiss from your little sister. Yeah, a girl kissed you, but it doesn't count.

Perhaps the most biased review I've seen was one by the Fringe critic for CBC, who is also a local stand-up comic, knocking the crap out of one of my comedy buddies, and telling him to "give it up."

Having seen this "critic" perform numerous times at Rumors, and being very familiar with his material, I know that he hadn't written a new joke for at least five years, was still telling "flood of the century" gags, and read his jokes off of a sheet of paper. He also introduced new comics at Rumors as "shit." No joke! But no one could criticize him, because he was the guy from CBC!

You tell me who should be "giving it up."

6. The "you shouldn't be here" review

You put on a comedy show. You make the crowd laugh. They leave satisfied.

Then the Free Press writes an article about how stand-up comedy has no place at the Fringe, because it's mainstream entertainment that squeezes out "serious theatre" (sorry, I can't find the link).

The crowd starts to get a little smaller. The people in the audience don't seem to be having quite as much fun. Theatre groups start lookin' at you funny. Then the Free Press reviewer shows up and makes it a foregone conclusion: see, I told you that comedy has no place at the Fringe!

All is fair in love and Fringe

The worst part about it is that people really believe the reviews they read. My dad himself once called me and said, "So you're not having a good run at the Fringe Fest, eh?" after reading the Free Press review. In fact, we had full houses, with people doubled over in laughter on a nightly basis.

"The reviewer is a prick," I responded, confident that it made me look petty and like a bad sport.

And to the wise ass who says that this review is all of the things I criticize above, you're right. But revenge - and one's own medicine - are dishes best served cold. Am I right, people?

Please do me one, last favor: when you're reading this year's Fringe reviews, in the immortal words of Chuck D (not Flavor Flav), remember: don't believe the hype.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Thank you, City Hall, for making Winnipeg more like Regina

You mean I can only park where it's yellow, red, and blue? An outrage!

Pave paradise, put up a parking lot.

Graham at Progressive Winnipeg has a great article today about downtown parking; mainly, people who think that the solution to revitalizing downtown Winnipeg lies with knocking down every building possible and putting up another place to park our vehicles.

As he rightly points out: it's a myth.

He says:
"Parkades are symbolic. They are symblolic because they represent something that will never change as long as we keep building parkades: the habit of Winnipeggers to park, go to their destination, return to their car, and leave. To continue building parkades is to continue to say "we don't want our downtown to be our destination, we want our parking spot to be."
Graham's article comes in response to the recent news that City Council wouldn't grant heritage status to the Grain Exchange Annex building on Lombard, which means the owner will likely destroy it to make room for yet even more parking. The decision still has to be affirmed by the executive policy committee on July 22.

Graham also points out that the Downtown Winnipeg Biz is holding an info session tomorrow at the Globe Theatre from noon to 1:30 called, "The role of parking as a catalyst for downtown development."

Even the title shows a strange positive bias toward having more parking, which is very odd position for the Downtown Biz to have, considering that it says on its website that "the Biz advocates for downtown revitalization and enhanced services on behalf of our members."

While more parking may, in fact, be "enhanced services on behalf of its members," more parking has nothing to do with "revitalization."

The law of supply and demand

As someone who works downtown, shops downtown, works out downtown, and sees concerts downtown - all the time - I've never had one problem finding parking.

Our parkades always have spots, there are tons of parking meters and free parking spots around Red River College (where I work), and the "traffic problem" that we were told we'd get before MTS Centre opened downtown never happened.

In fact, it's about a million times easier getting around downtown after a concert than it ever was getting out of Polo Park.

Anyone who thinks there's no parking in downtown Winnipeg never goes there, doesn't know what a parking spot looks like, is unwilling to pay as little as 25 cents at a meter (or to walk a block), or has never visited another major urban centre: in Chicago, I recently paid $200 U.S. for three days' of parking. No joke. That's because there really isn't any parking in downtown Chicago.

In New York, one of my favorite pastimes is taking pictures of the daily, weekly, and monthly parking rates. The New York Times reports that parking spots are going for $50,000 (Brooklyn) to $225,000 (Manhattan).

Supply and demand, folks.

Winnipeg parking, compared to any similar-sized city in Canada or the U.S. is a bargain, because there's lots and lots of it. If you disagree, perhaps your best bet is to move to Regina, population 200,000, where big box stores, parking lots, and traffic rule. Or you could just wait around Winnipeg for another 10 years to watch Winnipeg turn into the same thing.

Oooh bop bop bop.

*Update: no offense to Regina. I could've said Red Deer or any number of Canadian cities; but I know from stand-up that the word "Regina" makes all Winnipeggers sit up and take notice. Even the ones who are originally from Saskatchewan.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Five ways to improve movie theatres

Just five years ago, I would see about 12 movies a month in a movie theatre.

Now, I'm lucky if I see even one ("Brüno" was this month's extravagance).

The culprit isn't my busy schedule, work, or a lack of movies I would like to see. Instead, it's the ever-eroding movie-going experience that ticks me off, thanks to theatres that let people talk openly and loudly on cell phones and play air hockey right outside the door of the theatre, while they charge us $1 million per bag of popcorn and ban "outside food and beverages."

I'm hard pressed to think of any other service-oriented industry that treats its patrons with more disrespect and contempt, except for maybe cell phone providers. But that's another story.

So, here are my five suggestions for making the movie-going experience better for everyone:

1. Get ushers back into the theatres

When I used to work as an usher at the Towne Cinema, the job was taking tickets, cleaning up crap off the floor, and patrolling the theatre every 20 minutes. "Feet down," "Keep the noise down," and the occasional expulsion of a drunk were the order of the day, and people actually listened to what we said. Whatta concept.

When's the last time your usher did something to make your movie theatre a better place to be?

2. Check the quality of the projection regularly, and fix it if it doesn't work

The biggest offender here is the Globe Theatre - the place that shows the movies in which I'm most interested, but butchers them regularly so I can never go back.

Highlighted by dim lightbulbs and dim projectionists, who - I discovered the last time I complained - are about 12 years old and don't know shit. Which is why I once had to watch Ararat with a big hairball in the middle of the screen that, unbelievably, no one was able to do anything about.

When I complained later, I was promised that free movie passes would be mailed to my house. They never arrived, which is probably for the best, since I just would've got mad at the lousy projection again.

At the Towne Cinema the other day, the projectionist worked on perfecting the projection while the movie was in progress. Dude, planning is so underrated.

3. Ban cell phone use during the movie and check regularly to see if anyone needs to be whacked

We've all been irritated by the jerk who talks on a cell phone, and by his evil mistress, the person who checks and sends text messages - cell phone a-glowin' - during a movie, the rest of the audience be damned.

At Brüno, something new happened: the teenage kid behind me started playing music out of his cell phone. Loudly. On purpose. So I took out my piece and wasted him.

But, seriously, humans have proven themselves unable to control themselves around their cell phones. So, block the signals, ban their use, and invoke the death penalty if you have to. You'll only have to kill a few before the rest catch on!

4. Enough with the promo reel before the film

I used to make fun of the terrible movie-trivia PowerPoint for dummies they used to show before the movie:

"Who is the actor who starred as Han Solo and Indiana Jones? Hint: we'll show you his face!"

But that was nothing compared to the new, unholy film reel that runs loudly before the movie begins, featuring not only lame trivia, but also advertising and interviews with film-goers that are so dumb, it would make the boneheads on eTalk blush.

At Brüno, I was subjected to a tie-in with the new movie about Julia Child, where the "filmmakers" asked a group of movie goers: "If you could prepare any meal, what would it be? Sample answer: "I'm not good at making anything." Wow, how enlightening.

No one in the theatre is interested, so they generally talk through this piece of junk, which has the effect of making it seem that it's OK to talk when there's something showing on the screen - like, say, a movie.

Which reminds me. Here's an actual conversation I once had with a co-worker when I worked at the Towne Cinema:

Me: Whatever happened to "the conversation?"

Popcorn girl: What conversation?

Me: Not any particular conversation; the conversation per se.

Popcorn girl: Who's Percy?

Wah, wah, wah.

5. Remember: the product you're selling is "movies"

Just because a theatre makes more money selling popcorn and video games than on the movie itself doesn't mean that that's why we're coming to the theatre.

Movie theatre, you can feel free to upsell us once we're in the door, but please remember that the product is the movie. If video games, loud food, and ads get in the way of our enjoyment of the movie, then we'll just rent DVDs, watch video on demand, or download the movies for free. Suddenly, there will be no more audience to whom you can upsell.

Wait a sec - did someone say "free?" Forget everything I just said.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Cuts at BT are nothing new for the TV biz

Chris D has been reporting on the big changes at Citytv this weekend, which include the firing (his word) of Breakfast Television on-air staff Jimmy Mac and Terri Apostle.

This hits close to home, and not just because Mac is a comedy stalwart in Winnipeg with whom I've worked many times, but also because RRC Creative Communications' students' recent PR and Ad campaign was for BT.

The students' campaign goal was to increase ratings by 20 per cent by generating as much publicity, notoriety, and momentum for BT as possible, which meant that they were tasked with the same challenge as Citytv itself.

Faced with this task, these were the first two questions that first-year students asked me:

1. "Can we recommend that Citytv shorten the show to an hour?"

To this question, I said "no." Easy answer; that question is like Michelangelo saying, "The Sistine Chapel is a pretty big canvas. How about I paint you a 8.5 x ll portrait?" Not gonna happen...

2. "Can we recommend that Citytv change the on-air staff?"

To this question, I also said "no." We train our students to get jobs in the media, with PR agencies, ad agencies, and as communication professionals; how would you like to fight hard for a job, get it, then have your alma mater put together a marketing campaign to replace you? Not gonna happen, part 2...

If this was the students' second suggestion, you can see how a local TV station could come to the same conclusion: it all comes down to audience, branding, money or a combination of "all of the above."

1. The audience

Broadcast media's audience is, by definition, fickle.

The power of television is "visuals" and that's how we judge what we watch. As any TV news personality will tell you, viewers are more vocal about anchors' hairstyles and neckties than they are about the actual news (which may be why some TV anchors, in the wake of high def TV, apparently want plastic surgery to be included in the budget).

And it's really no better in radio, which regularly makes its on-air employees commit "audio plastic surgery" by changing their names, like a friend of mine did when he was told that his last name was "too Jewish for radio." Uh, probably because he is Jewish. But he changed it, because - as much as it seems wrong - if you want a job in radio, that's what you have to do.

Sometimes an audience is represented by a focus group, which decides that it likes some on-air talent more than other on-air talent, especially when asked directly to decide. Management listens to the focus group and - voila - gets rid of the offending parties.

2. Branding

For good or bad, on-air staff are the face and voice of the media outlet, and if they don't (or "no longer") represent the station's direction or brand, they're gone. The good news is that when on-air staff get "rejected" by one media outlet, there's usually another that sees a match; and, yes, Mac and Apostle confirm with Chris D that that they've each had two offers since Friday. Good for them!

3. Money

Older on-air talent costs more than fresh-out-of-school talent; students are willing to be "poor and famous" more than older people with experience. Older on-air staff is usually over the fame part of the job, and just wants to be paid for their experience. As Bill Murray once said in an interview: "Rich and famous? Rich does it for me."

The future of the TV news

Still, this discussion may be largely academic. The greater problem may be that the TV news as we currently know it is an outdated model. Why do we need to wait through the next commercial break for a TV weatherperson to tell us what the forecast will be when we can find out online or on our cell phones "right now?"

At our campaign pitch to Citytv in April, station GM Tom Scott asked the first-year students, "Where do you see TV programming in five years?" Their unanimous answer: online and on demand, which may or may not mean that on-air talent would be serving it up.

If you've even tried to watch an entire local newscast recently, you know how hard it is to actually make it to the end of the entire show without flipping, shutting off the TV, or falling asleep.

As we talked about in class this semester, if TV stations want to stave off this crisis, they'll need to increase viewer participation by linking themselves more closely with new media, and considering alternate media streams and screens to make their product worthwhile again. The engine to drive this, we said, is advertising, PR, buzz, word of mouth, viral media, social media, promotions, and guerrilla marketing.

Without any of this stuff, another on-air host is only another on-air host. And where's the money in that anymore?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Brüno gives Duet PR a double whammy

Irony, meet Duet PR.

The Los Angeles-based PR firm, which bills itself as having the "talent and energy to generate positive media attention" is featured in the new Brüno movie where - you guessed it - its owners show themselves to have the talent and energy to look like complete morons on camera (even though they were openly filmed, paid in cash, and asked to sign a waiver).

In the film, Brüno consults the firm's principals, identical twins Nicole and Suzie DeFosset, to see what trendy charity he should support to become famous. Like a female Dumb and Dumber, the two take the bait; they suggest he look into Darfur, though they're unable to locate it on a map or, apparently, even pronounce it.

Half of the fun of seeing Brüno is being surprised by his shenanigans, so I won't go any further, other than to say that I'm happy that the DeFosset sisters' suffering is over, and that I'll never have to hire them or their firm to do anything ever.

BlackBook interviews the sisters about their Brüno appearance here, where they admit that they'd heard of Borat and Ali G, but not Brüno:
"Yeah, we obviously know who he is—we know Ali G and we know Borat, we’re huge fans. But Brüno, we didn’t recognize him at all. But after two minutes talking to him, we definitely realized that it wasn’t a real business meeting. We were definitely suspicious because he was asking ridiculously funny questions and we were on camera.

"It actually took us almost 11 months (to find out) and it was pretty surreal for us because a friend sent us a message, and he was like, you girls are in Brüno, did you know that? And we didn’t think anything of it. We were like, what’s Brüno? And he was like, It’s Sacha Baron Cohen’s new movie. And we were like, what? And then we saw the TV promos, and we were in the highlights, and we’re like oh, it’s official, we’re in the movie now."

The good news is for the firm: the film is hilarious; I had tears of joy running down my cheeks, and after the film's grand finale and piece de resistance, it's not likely that anyone will remember much about those PR goofballs earlier in the film.

But c'mon: a PR firm should, like, totally know better.

Friday, July 10, 2009

U2 has a Mark Sanfordesque relationship with BlackBerry

BlackBerry hearts U2...

Dear BlackBerry: it may be time to start seeing other bands.

In one of the worst advertising themelines since "I'm lovin' it," BlackBerry's new ad campaign proudly announces that "BlackBerry loves U2."

What we're supposed to do with this info - other than get grossed out - is unclear, but this is apparently BlackBerry's attempt to promote its expensive sponsorship deal with U2 and the new mobile version of the band's crappiest album ever (and remember: U2 released Pop and Zooropa), No Line on the Horizon.

I've provided no links to these albums, because you don't want 'em.

As the talkbacker "Charbarred" says on Stereogum: "Wow, those BlackBerry guys are so hip." Yeah, I can't wait to download the new U2 album and listen to it with all my peeps.

Not only is this ad about as unhip as an ad treatment can get, it suffers in comparison to U2's previous advertising partnership with Apple (below), still fresh in the minds of everyone who saw it when it ran a million times a day on every TV and radio station on planet Earth.

BlackBerry's ad makes it clear that it really, really wants to be Apple, which smacks of desperation - the opposite of authenticity. And U2's willingness to abandon a brand to the highest bidder with one of its weakest songs is the icing on the cake; the old-school equivalent would be for Michael Jackson to do an "Earth Song" ad for Coke after the "Billie Jean" ad for Pepsi.

Viewers always know the difference between good and bad, authentic and pretentious. I've known "With or Without You," BlackBerry. And you, BlackBerry, are no "With or Without You."

...But U2 is screwing around with Apple!