Reading Books in America

This is an interesting development for people who think there is still a market for the printed word, and I don't think much has changed since I first published this piece over a year ago.

In my opinion, the rise in the number of people who don't read books does not mean that people are not reading. I think it is more a case where what they read has evolved to the point where the book is an irrelevant item in their lives.

Have you ever walked into someone's house and noticed whether or not they have books? An absence of books means one of two things--either they don't read them or they have a robust E-reader or tablet and have no further use for books. They have de-cluttered their life and adopted the digital library as a way of managing their space.  I can sympathize with that--I have books that are in Rubbermaid containers precisely because there isn't room for them. Should I chuck them out or should I save them?

The E-reader market has tanked in some ways because of the flood of mediocre material (people trying to cash in) and because the devices are not profitable enough when marketed against tablets that do more than one thing. When you think back about all of the people who are holding e-reader devices (hey, that's me!), there's almost no solution that looks like an upside. How do you carry around a library full of books on a device that is rendered obsolete in mere months? How many people are going to create a fully digitized library that has to be stored in the cloud or ported around or copied and re-copied? People are more likely to do that with the music they care about. Books, like old albums or songs that are tiresome, can fall away.

And, yes, I thought of this as well. Literacy isn't an issue:

The percentage of people who are not educated but can read? Is that increasing? I have no idea. I suspect that it is.

Complex, inaccessible, and pretentious literary offerings don't actually kill off readership--they simply turn people away from writers but not the medium itself. Stephen King is widely read because he delivers; being able to deliver isn't the same as being good or bad, but there's no way King could be considered a bad writer.

I don't know if people stop reading so much as they stop trying to engage written forms of entertainment. The human need remains. What fills those needs has evolved and changed with the technology, but the technology itself went straight past simple reading into the world of multi-media entertainment options. How many people use a Kindle Paperwhite as opposed to a tablet? And which one do you think is better for you?

Moonbeam City Season One Episode 2

Historical mistakes are easy to spot, but you're usually being a dick when you point them out. Episode 2 of Moonbeam City's first season opens with a rave, and this was ruined for me when I started to think about the origins of rave parties and things like that.

Moonbeam City was definitely not the home of rave music, and the DJ decks are more 2000s than Eighties. This was something I would have expected in Manchester, England but I'm no fun and I suck. The juvenile delinquency of Moonbeam City is a subplot here but it shouldn't have been the home of a rave. We need to keep the Nineties out of the Eighties if we're going to satirize things, but that didn't stop the episode from being weird, violent, crude and very, very funny. I'm going to turn a negative into a positive and stop complaining at some point, I swear.

As in the pilot episode, the jokes are rapid-fire and moderately crude (if you can handle South Park or Archer, you can handle Moonbeam City). The plot is nonsensical, and so it dredges up the best and the worst of the Eighties all at once. 

The strength of the show is when it plays up the delusional self-importance of the characters and that's not a bad place to start as far as creating multiple story lines. That's why it's disappointing when they deviate from what was cheesy about the Eighties. 

For example, do you remember the film Buckaroo Banzai? There was so much about that film to like when it was released, but I'll bet you haven't thought about it ages (I know I haven't). What I remember was the superficiality and the insane plot that ended up being secondary to the style and the "inside joke" mentality that ran through the film. Oh, and the fact that Buckaroo Banzai was a rock musician and a neurosurgeon--exactly what the Eighties needed.

I'd like to see more of that and less of the Nineties in Moonbeam City, but I probably won't get my way. In fact, put me down as saying that Clancy Brown should do some voice work on MC--that would bring it all full circle.

Episode 2 went further in explaining Dazzle's self-evident delusions of grandeur and Rad's resentment of everything successful that comes Dazzle's way. He is hell-bent on destroying anything good in Dazzle's life, so he's just like a good Eighties villain. He has little motivation beyond envy and no hope of achieving his goals. I would like to see more of Chrysalis--being the only competent person in a show can get tiresome. 

Am I going to give up on this show? Hell, I can't figure out when it's on and finding time to put out a review is hard enough. I like everyone in it and the visual design is extremely well done. I am pulling for more Eighties satire, but, because I'm old and don't spend as much as someone fifteen years younger, I doubt the show will move in that direction. That's okay--I like what I'm seeing and I think it will get better.

Robert DeNiro is Tired of Your Nonsense

Piers Morgan is a name you probably haven't thought about in years, if at all. He's one of the many fools that Robert De Niro has avoided dealing with:

Piers Morgan has called on journalists to impose a "ban" on Robert De Niro after he walked out of a recent interview with a British journalist.

The legendary actor was promoting his latest film The Intern, a generation gap comedy in which he stars opposite Anne Hathaway, when he apparently became aggravated by Emma Brockes' questions about how he avoids slipping into autopilot during shooting and the growing number of bankers living in his New York neighbourhood.

Brockes reports in this week's issue of the Radio Times that De Niro asked her to pause her tape recorder and informed her that was halting the interview because of what he called a "negative inference" in her questions. An awkward exchange between Brockes and De Niro followed, in which the actor told the journalist on several occasions: "I'm not doing this, darling."

Sharing his views on the incident in the Daily Mail, Morgan writes that De Niro was a "bloody nightmare" when he interviewed him on CNN several years ago and criticises the actor's conduct towards journalists generally, saying: "It's as if he prides himself on being a total douchebag."

Later in the article, Morgan proposes that "it's time the world's media fought back" against De Niro's reportedly bad-tempered behaviour in interviews, suggesting: "Let's ban him. Every journalist in the world should agree, with immediate effect, never to interview him again."

If you're going to get back at someone, at least have a platform from which to do so. Morgan is circling the drain, hoping you'll pay attention to him and his grievances against celebrities. Maybe he should have hacked into De Niro's phone in order to get something on him, I don't know. 

The interview in question featured De Niro not putting up with a line of questioning that implied that he was phoning it in with his performance in a very specific kind of movie called The Intern. This is not a Scorsese film; this is a fish out of water story about transferring intergenerational wisdom and learning how to accept a massage at work. De Niro was right to walk out on the interview--it generated a lot of publicity and that's all that matters. You would think Morgan would be smart enough to know that.

Moonbeam City Season One Episode 1

Pizazz, Rad, Dazzle, Chrysalis

Pizazz, Rad, Dazzle, Chrysalis

I have to tell you that an old fart like me loves to see anything that satirizes the Eighties. Moonbeam City is a show that will never run out of plot lines if they keep making fun of the most plastic decade that ever was.

Everything about this show begins with the art of Patrick Nagel. If you click over, I have to warn you--his gallery works are not safe for work but they should be. The aesthetic of his prints forms the visual basis of MC, right down to the use of shadowy blinds whenever Pizazz Miller is dressing down Dazzle Novak. This is not a knock against Nagel--it is homage, if you want to get right down to it.

There are four main cast members. Dazzle is voiced by Rob Lowe and he does an admirable job of being clueless (think of a hyped, oversexed version of his character from Parks and Recreation). Elizabeth Banks steals the melodrama as Pizazz. Will Forte plays the nemesis as Rad and Kate Mara plays Chrysalis, the brainy girl with glasses who props everyone else up.

I think this is where we're really going to hear how far Banks is willing to go to portray crazy--she's the best thing in this show and she knows how to live in this world. They need to add three or four more regulars to this cast or really work the guest spots because there's a lot of talent and subject matter to play with here.

Episode One is full of jokes--the come in rapid fire succession and I have to go back and watch it because I know I probably missed a third of what's in this thing. Everyone seems to get it coming and going, right down to the naming of shopping malls (an Eighties thing for me was how they named the malls in Minneapolis after something-Dale) and the subject of new age musical pieces (can't wait for Music From the Hearts of Space). It's violent and there's a lot of sexual content--think Archer and then add the Eighties sensibility of everything being super serious and earnest instead of smartassed and detached.

At some point, someone has to add some INXS and some Wham! to this show or it's going to explode under the weight of a missed opportunity. 

Dazzle is a little too much like Archer in that his incompetence and irresponsibility is what makes him a good cop, the #1 Cop, as it were. That's an aspect that's been done to death but it makes for tension because his Lana is Chrysalis. Pizazz is more like his Malory Archer and Rad is a combination of everyone who ever tried to destroy him. But, really, we can look past this and find a lot to like about Moonbeam City because the design and the presentation are pretty stunning. The writing is good enough to get past comparisons and, hey. It's not the Simpsons and it's definitely not Family Guy, so there you go.

What I like is the satirization of Eighties culture. Superficiality reigns supreme--the more fake a person is, the more they are central to what's happening. If you hear anything insincere, you're watching the wrong show or misunderstanding the whole thing. The show satirizes the way cops use guns and how cars seem to exist solely for chasing other cars. The only thing missing is the cocaine--wait.

This show probably has more cocaine on it than Season 5 of Archer, and that's saying something. But, really--it's worth watching once you get past the fact that Comedy Central probably needs to send Adam Reed a few checks.

The Sweethearts of Late Night Television

In particular, in an interview with TV Insider, Leno took time to praise Seth Meyers, Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert (“a truly nice guy and decent human being”) before taking aim at Jimmy Kimmel, who has been a vicious and relentless critic of Leno over the years.

“The most [important] element you can have in doing a late night show is kindness,” Leno said. “Because the show makes you arrogant. I think that’s Jimmy Kimmel’s problem. I think he’s a talented guy, I think he’s funny. But he has a mean streak, and it comes across. He does this thing where he takes Halloween candy from kids and the kids cry. What am I missing here? It is funny I guess, but it’s mean-based. I think that’s why he’s not higher in the ratings.”

So, the most successful person in the history of late night television--Johnny Carson--was "nice?" 

Bushkin, who didn't return calls, says age didn't mellow Carson, who retired from "Tonight" in 1992. On a honeymoon cruise, his fourth wife, Alexis, made an innocent remark, prompting Carson to snap, "If you say something like that again, this marriage won't last another three weeks."

Though Carson's 20-year friendship with Bushkin ended around 1987, when Bushkin began to see Johnny's "cruel side" more often, Alex stayed married to the talk deity till his death in 2005.

You're Doing it Wrong

If this is the sum total of your criticism of a television show, you should probably try to learn to like television again:

And therein lies the rub: Colbert’s entire television career has been as a political satirist. He knows nothing else, which is why it’s no surprise four more presidential candidates will be joining The Late Show in the coming days (Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul). Outside of Biden and a possible announcement, is a political late-night program the right course? Because outside of a very select few, most politicans are packaged, tedious, boring to the masses.

As for Colbert’s standing in the late night race, I’m sticking to my original bet from back in April of 2014 (when it first announced he would replace Letterman) on where he’ll ultimately end up when everything settles in and the curiosity factor fades: Third place, just like his predecessor in the final years of his career. No magical analysis or detail really needed here: Kimmel and Fallon are simply more talented, more experienced (in playing themselves), possess more range, connect with younger viewers better and are decidedly more apolitical than the 51-year-old Colbert, who was signed by CBS more because of cost-effectiveness than anything else after Jon Stewart was deemed too expensive to sign.

Maybe things can change and improve from a rookie debut (although doing this every night is far different than having almost a year to prepare). But it’s already clear that Stephen Colbert the person isn’t very different from Stephen Colbert the character, save for the sarcasm and edginess missing. And as a result, the new late-night host for the Tiffany Network better get used to seeing not gold, not silver, but plenty of bronze when the ratings books come out after the dust settles a few months from now.

Joe Concha goes on to highlight Laura Ingraham's quote from Twitter. Now, I don't want to indict someone based on a tweet or a citation, but if this is any indication of actual criticism, you're going to be let down when you realize Ingraham is a long-time partisan hack who doesn't read and has little or no talent or ability.

Given what we've seen after the first week of Colbert, I just don't think you can say that Kimmel or Fallon are better at interviewing people or making news. This goes back to the reason why Phil Donahue ended up getting canned from television--there is no legitimate reason why he was fired, other than the fact that he was "partisan" and "the most popular show on MSNBC," which coincided with him being against the Iraq War in 2003.

If there's one prediction I'd like to make, it's this--Colbert will be attacked, endlessly, if he shows any partisan slant because it is incredibly dangerous to be popular and liberal on television unless you act goofy once in a while and present to threat to anyone in power. This is how the media handled his speech at the White House Correspondent's Dinner:

Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts write in The Washington Post's gossip column: "The reviews from the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner are in, and the consensus is that President Bush and Bush impersonator Steve Bridges stole Saturday's show -- and Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert's cutting satire fell flat because he ignored the cardinal rule of Washington humor: Make fun of yourself, not the other guy.

" 'You have to have a great deal of confidence to do self-deprecating humor, especially when you're being attacked day in and day out,' said Landon Parvin, who helped Bush and Bridges write the jokes contrasting Bush's public voice with his supposed inner thoughts."

It's not entirely clear from whom, besides Bush's own joke-writer, Argetsinger and Roberts divined what they described as the consensus view. But it's a safe bet that, at a minimum, they were speaking for The Washington Post newsroom.

Paul Bedard writes for U.S. News: "Comedy Central star Stephen Colbert's biting routine at the White House Correspondents Association dinner won a rare silent protest from Bush aides and supporters Saturday when several independently left before he finished.

" 'Colbert crossed the line,' said one top Bush aide, who rushed out of the hotel as soon as Colbert finished. Another said that the president was visibly angered by the sharp lines that kept coming.

" 'I've been there before, and I can see that he is [angry],' said a former top aide. 'He's got that look that he's ready to blow.'

That was almost ten years ago and no one's getting over it any time soon. What is now considered one of the greatest examples of speaking truth to power (never mind being right about everything) was once considered rude and ill-mannered. Colbert not only brings actual danger and excitement to everything he does, he also represents a serious threat to the continuation of a media status quo that favors ignorant centrism and glib conservatives pretending to be fair.

Yeah, no one ever said anything like that about either Jimmy ever.

A Revolution in Late Night Television

What you are witnessing is the beginning of a new era in Late Night television--an era where bullshit and sarcasm and snark are no longer the currency of the medium:

Vice President Joe Biden gave a moving interview to comedian Stephen Colbert on "The Late Show" on Thursday, expressing his uncertainty about whether he's emotionally prepared to run for president after the death of his son this past year. "I'd be lying if I said that I knew I was there," he told Colbert. "I'm being completely honest." Biden, still reeling from the death of his eldest son, told Colbert any man or woman running for president should be able "to give 110 percent of who they are," but that he wasn't sure he could make the commitment just yet.

That's the news of what happened--the part that will get reported on by the diligent stenographers of the working press in Washington D.C. What you won't hear is enough about the context of how Stephen Colbert got Vice President Joe Biden to make news today.

Colbert brought out his guest after making fun of the Republicans running for president, and he threw in a Hillary Clinton joke to make it fair. But, really, he mocked the hell out of Donald Trump once again. And once that was over, Colbert went into another segment and separated himself from the entirety of late night television as a medium. He demonstrated that not only is he there because of what he can do but how he is going to do things differently. This is nothing short of a transitional moment if not a cultural shift away from smartassery and insincerity.

Colbert made small talk for a few moments and then went right to the Beau Biden question. He stopped the comedy and he stopped the laughter in order to get Joe Biden to talk about his late son. There's no getting around it--Biden knew that they were going to get serious and there's no question of an agreement to talk at length about suffering and loss. But this is the first guest segment on a late night talk show. A show that is on its third episode. This is where you get a big laugh or throw it to a pre-recorded snippet designed to promote a movie or a show. You go for momentum and rollicking fun, right?

Nope. This is not where you talk about how the Vice President of the United States of America is dealing with the loss of his son and the continuing heartache over losing his wife and daughter in the early 1970s. The downshift may have thrown people off, but there's no getting around the fact that Biden made news and Colbert conducted a near flawless interview with someone over a serious subject. It's impossible to know how many people will be reached by this interview, and I suspect it will play a huge role in Biden's evolving story. It will signify for many the direction in which Colbert has planned to take his show.

And, what's more, there was a concerted effort to reach out to people in the audience and at home. It was an attempt to recognize loss and deal with that in a cathartic way. When's the last time you saw someone on television do something cathartic that didn't involve shooting bullets into a corpse? 

Who does this? Can you see Jimmy Kimmel or Jimmy Fallon doing this? I can't. Sorry, they are both very talented men. I think Kimmel has a great take on Johnny Carson's skepticism and I think Fallon is ten times better than Jay Leno. But Colbert is fifty times better than all of them put together and at least eight times better than David Letterman. Do the math! I can't.

I can't stress this enough--no one does this anymore. This is where Colbert bonded with the Vice President over the loss of his own father and brothers. This is where you saw that the game is about to change and where people are going to bond with Colbert and follow his show for a long time to come. He brought his audience with him, and he's going to add people right and left. It's not enough to entertain anymore--you have to reach people and show them that you're in tune with how the world works. It was a powerful interview and if you have a chance to see the whole thing, you'll see laughter and tears in one place, a rarity nowadays.

And to see such an open and frank discussion about faith--religion--on television without it being used as a weapon against gay people or against minorities is the revolution at work. I mean, you gotta watch this for yourself [no direct link yet, but this is the Colbert site] to see what I mean and you can probably explain the cultural importance of this better than I could, but, wow.

Just, wow.

The Late Show With Stephen Colbert


I will spoil a few things here for you--the Late Show With Stephen Colbert premiered tonight and it starts off strong. It's worth watching if you're thinking about looking at what's on your DVR or online. This is the debut of one of the most important cultural programs this year and I'm just as excited as anyone else. The long wait for this show was difficult, to say the least, but there was no point in putting it out there until now. The audience for this show is going to skew a lot younger than people realize, and I feel like it's going to be difficult to keep up.

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert

Having said that, I will note that the cold open was nicely done. The ideas that flow out of this show are going to challenge people to keep up, and there are visual cues that will keep you from missing The Colbert Report. The first bit Colbert did hearkened back to the visual format of the old show and played to a strength he has with the language. This is important because Colbert has not abandoned the skills or abilities that got him the job in the first place.

The Ed Sullivan Theater looks amazing. The set was flipped around specifically to avoid comparisons to the Letterman version. There is an awkwardness, though, when guests appear center stage and cross in front of Colbert to get to their seat--you'll see this and it will throw you off because you have long been accustomed to an entrance from left to right.

Visually, though, this is a show that celebrates the past of the host and the power of New York City. Colbert doesn't make the "Leno mistake" of failing to acknowledge the previous host of the show he inherits. Jay Leno debuted his own show with a screaming harpy (look it up) as a producer who refused to allow him to pay tribute to Johnny Carson. This is one of the greatest gaffes in late night television history, and Colbert is too smart to do it. Think also of how Jimmy Fallon had Joan Rivers on his show--all the curses are going away with style.

Colbert gets weird, and for that you will have to ride it out. If weird humor isn't your thing, you're going to make comparisons in your sleep to Conan O'Brien. And then you're going to wake up with the fossil of an extinct species of bird hanging out of your mouth--don't say I didn't warn you.

Clooney was good, and Jeb Bush was able to speak once Colbert realized that he was really giving the guy a hard time--you could really see the fear Bush had when it was apparent that no one is ever going to forget the family name. What you'll see in the Clooney part was inspired fun; what you'll see when Colbert gives Bush the full force of his intellect will give every politician in this country pause. If you're not fast, Colbert will bury you. Consultants everywhere who have some measure of control over their candidates will not let them do Colbert, no matter what. And it was no wonder that Hillary Clinton wasn't there tonight--far too risky. She'll have to do this show and she'll have to be absolutely perfect.

Musically, John Batiste is the anti-Paul Shaffer. Here's an actual jazz musician on an American stage for what seems to be the first time in ages. He doesn't have a pop or rock sensibility--he is an entertainer with a strong musical vocabulary and a great band behind him, bringing the sound of New Orleans with them. They have him untethered and wandering the stage--a great visual to begin with as he settles in and starts to really find the music this show needs to present. 

Will it last? Will CBS support this show if there is a struggle for ratings? I can't imagine a scenario where they wouldn't, but this is the unforgiving world of late night television. Nobody phones it in anymore, and this is the beginning of a new era. Who will fall? Will they finally pull the plug on Conan? Will ABC realize that Jimmy Kimmel can't compete? Will Jimmy Fallon hold on and find a place once Colbert starts to eat into everyone's ratings?

Why am I hungry for Sabra hummus?

Put This on Television

Christopher Orr is on to something:

Fifteen years ago, when I finished reading Patrick O’Brian’s magisterial 20-novel Aubrey-Maturin series for the first time, I remember thinking, damn you, Horatio Hornblower. C.S. Forester’s renowned nautical protagonist was at the time enjoying the starring role in the British TV series Hornblower, and given the close similarities to O’Brian’s oeuvre—both concern the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic era—it seemed unlikely bordering on inconceivable that anyone would try to adapt the latter for television.

That was, of course, at a time when it almost went without saying that a project of such scope and pedigree would have to be British. But the televisual times have since changed immeasurably for the better on this side of the Atlantic, and now it’s easy to envision O’Brian’s books—which The Times Book Review has hailed as “the best historical novels ever written”—being adapted by any number of networks: HBO, obviously, but also AMC, FX, Netflix, USA … the list grows longer by the month.

Which is a very good thing, because if someone would merely get around to undertaking them, the Aubrey-Maturin novels could easily provide material for exquisite television, offering the action and world-building scale of Game of Thrones, the social anthropology (and Anglo-historical appeal) of Downton Abbey, and two central characters reminiscent of (though far more deeply etched than) Rust Cohle and Marty Hart in the first season of True Detective. Someone really needs to make this happen.

I think the parallel here would be the work done on the series Rome, which was enormously expensive, and would consume a great deal of time and effort. If I were going to undertake this as a television project, I would probably have to constrain the project to a limited number of sets.

Look at the set depicted above--look at the detail. Anything less and you're not going to convince anyone of anything. And yet, that scene was probably filmed on a soundstage.

The first logistical problem is filming at sea. No, you don't have to venture far out into the water with a functioning three-masted sailing ship, but you have to have something convincing. In the case of the Master and Commander, movie, they had a terrific replica of Jack Aubrey's Surprise. They used a water tank with gimbals and the HMS Rose, which is moored in San Diego, California (perfect for a California-based production). Everything else you could CGI as needed. There are set piece battles that would be prohibitively expensive and would have to be done sparingly.

The second would be filming on sets on land; much of the Aubrey-Maturin series takes place in England and on other land-based locations like the island of Mallorca. You could film those anywhere. It's the sea action that begins to present the next set of challenges since your source material has the duo sailing all over the world. Given the proximity of the Caribbean and Hawaii, no problem shooting on those locations if costs are kept at a minimum. Too many location shots and you're going to run out of money fast. An ocean is an ocean, of course, but can you convincingly shoot the English Channel, Gibraltar, and the South Pacific in one place?

The third would be scope--how many episodes per year? Do you do a 16 episode season and break it into two pieces or do you do it with 10-12 one hour episodes? Then, you have to find an Aubrey and a Maturin. You're not getting Russell Crowe to do this--it would be ideal, of course, and you could film half of it in California and half in Australia. Would Crowe give up his time and is he now too old for the role? Probably not, but could you get Paul Bettany? Probably not. You could find two younger actors and run with that. That's what I would do--I'd keep the costs down that way and then I wouldn't have to worry about someone bailing in Seasons 4 and 5 if I was lucky enough to get there. Ha! Listen to me go on.

The limitations are there, but this is eminently doable if you approach it like they did Poldark for Masterpiece Theater. For Poldark, they used limited sets and creatively applied small touches to enhance the look and feel of the series. You could do all of this in Europe and you could probably do it all in California, but there would be endless applications of CGI. Would that add up to a television experience that would draw in enough people?

Well, give it a season and find out.

Are You Excited?

I don't know if I'll do recaps of the Late Show With Stephen Colbert, but I suspect I'll be watching a good deal of it on a regular basis. I just can't explain why, but, of everyone in the entertainment business, I find Colbert's sense of humor closest to my own in that what he does is endlessly interesting to me and I am thoroughly in awe of what he can do when he goes after a subject. I'm amazed at how fast he is and how well he responds to people. I wish I was that good. I think we all wish we were as smart as this man. He has none of Letterman's self-loathing and virtually nothing of Jay Leno's inability to get out of the way of a laugh. I suspect that if people don't watch his show it'll be because we are doomed as a culture and unable to appreciate genius.

Nobody else on television is as good. Nobody.