Thursday, August 30, 2012

Heeeere's Your Pink Slip!

Late night television options used to consist of a movie, something on UHF and "The Tonight Show."

The air space after the local news was ruled with an iron fist by one Johnny Carson. ABC made a run at Johnny when it debuted "Nightline" in 1980 with Ted Koppel (a show born from the Iran hostage crisis), but Johnny was the unquestioned No. 1 when it came to TV around the witching hour.

Johnny was 36 when he took over "Tonight" in 1962. For comparison sake, Jimmy Fallon is 37 years old.

But Johnny got better and more dominant with age, just like a strong whiskey. He moved easily into his 50s and 60s, his hair getting grayer but his appeal not. His viewers got gray with him, and maybe that was part of it, too.

Joey Bishop made a run at Johnny in the late-1960s on ABC but even Rat Packer Bishop wasn't much of a threat. Then Johnny moved the show from New York to California in the early-1970s and his already impressive guest list got even better, as the big-time movie stars were now even more accessible. Some would drive themselves to the NBC studios in Burbank to chat with Carson, then drive home.

David Letterman joined the fray in 1982 and finally there became a viable option to Carson's old school blend of straight man, cheesy sketches and quirky guests like "the potato chip lady."

Today, the late night TV pie is sliced so thin, into so many pieces, that it's not a slam dunk anymore that "Tonight" (hosted by 62-year-old Jay Leno for almost 20 years now) will pull in big viewership nightly.

The vulnerability of "Tonight" was underlined recently when news broke that the show, which has been on the air in various forms for about 60 years, was making staff cuts.

Layoffs on the "Tonight Show"? Believe it.

Leno is only signed to host "Tonight" thru September 2013

About 20 people lost their jobs, and Leno's $26 million annual salary took a 10-percent cut. According to the Detroit News article, it was only the second time in the show's 58-year history that layoffs happened.

"Tonight" draws about 3.7 million viewers nightly, but before the sloppy, ham-handed switch to Conan O'Brien and then back to Leno a couple years back, those numbers were over 5 million viewers.

The late night audience is a younger breed, and they like Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show" and they like Jimmy Kimmel, whose show will be shifted 30 minutes earlier, to the 11:35 p.m. slot to compete directly with Leno and Letterman.

Here's more bottom lining for you: cable networks gobble up nearly 84 percent of the $5.6 billion late night TV market, according to research firm Kantar Media. The cause and effect is that the over-the-air networks are losing market share---over 5 percent last year alone.

NBC has prided itself on being a leader with television's wake up and go-to-sleep viewers, with "The Today Show" and "Tonight" ruling the roost for decades. And NBC was a pioneer of sorts when it introduced programs like "The Midnight Special" on Saturday nights and "Tomorrow" with Tom Snyder weeknights at 1:00 a.m., after Carson.

Well, this isn't 1966 anymore. Or 1996, for that matter.

Leno's contract expires in September 2013. NBC may have a decision to make at that point.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Breaking Type

Actors call it typecasting, and it's a dirty word for them. It might as well be four letters in length.

Typecasting (aggh!!) has been the bane of many an actor, who gets pigeon-holed into a certain character or persona and, no matter how hard they try, can never really shake the image.

Typecasting isn't all bad, of course. Many an actor has made a mint playing the same character, either literally or similarly.

And, conversely, there have been cautionary tales of a performer getting restless and leaving a successful TV series, for example, in an effort to find something else, anything else, to play. And those folks ended up losing a boatload of money.

J.K. Rowling has been typecast---as an author.

Rowling, the rags-to-riches author of the "Harry Potter" series of books, decided that enough was enough and stopped writing the Potter books, despite the enormous fortune the stories netted her.

I don't know; if I was making the dough that Rowling was making---from the books and the films that were spawned from them---I think I might pump those suckers out like a Pez dispenser until my fingers fell off from all the typing.

But to her credit, Rowling decided to fight the typecasting and write "adult" stories. Not adult as in naughty---well, you get the idea.

Her first attempt at non-Harry Potter, non-adolescent, non-fantasy writing debuts soon---September 27, to be exact.

The novel is called "The Casual Vacancy," and it takes place in a little British town (naturally; she's a native Brit) called Pagford. It will retail for $35 and it revolves around an election held after a member of the parish council unexpectedly dies.

J.K. Rowling

From a story in today's Free Press:

"I expect the world to be ecstatic at the range of her imaginative reach," predicts Rowling's American publisher, Michael Pietsch. One of the few to have read the embargoed book, he calls Rowling "a genius, one of the great writers of all time." Reading the 512-page novel, he says, "reminded me of Dickens because of the humanity, the humor, the social concerns, the intensely real characters."

Two words: We'll see.

More than 2 million hardcovers were printed, so it's clear that the Little, Brown publishing company expects a boon in sales.

But there are some similarities to the Potter books. Namely, there are no advanced copies and therefore no advanced reviews to be found. No one will know until after September 27 whether Rowling has a hit on her hands, or not.

Rowling's seven-part Potter series sold more than 450 million copies. So maybe a mere initial run of 2 million for "The Casual Vacancy" will prove to be a drop in the bucket.

The first Potter movie was released in 1997, so in 15 years those youngsters are now grown and perhaps have started families of their own. Will they be a target audience for Rowling's first adult novel?

"Fans who read Harry Potter as children will be one of the core audiences for this book, without a doubt," says Diane Roback, children's book editor at Publishers Weekly. "I cannot think of an author who is more beloved by her readers."

But will those readers break form and look at Rowling as she obviously would like to be seen? That is, as an author with some range?

Again, those two tiny words: We'll see.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Flappy Homemaker

I recently saw Comedy Central's roast of comedienne Roseanne Barr, and one roaster after the other ended their set in a similar fashion: by thanking her for being a trailblazer and for opening up opportunities for other female stand-up comics.

That's all well and good---Roseanne's successful, eponymous sitcom did indeed open up paths for other strong, sassy female characters on television.

But let's not forget who did Roseanne on stage before Roseanne did it.

Phyllis Diller kind of looked like Cruella DeVil on stage, with her long cigarette holder and her feathery boa and her wild, untamed hair. But Diller wasn't an evil, wretched woman---she was just funny, albeit sometimes in an evil, wretched way.

Diller would go on stage, as Roseanne later did, and complain about being a housewife. Diller called her husband Fang and he was the butt of a lot of her jokes. Poking fun at the defenseless, non-present spouse has always been a winner, whether the joke teller is male or female.

But good material works best with a good delivery, and Phyllis Diller, who died the other day at the very ripe age of 95, had one of the most iconic deliveries in stand-up comedy history.

Diller would puff on her long cigarette and poke her eyes out from the feathers and deliver her jabs at Fang and other targets, ranging from the mailman to cooking, and then punctuate many of her jokes with a laugh that was big, throaty and borderline mad.

Roseanne has a distinctive laugh, too---though I'm sure that's all coincidental.

Phyllis Diller was born Phyllis Driver in Lima, Ohio in 1917. She studied music and learned to play the piano quite well, but was intimidated by other pianists and dropped the thought of pursuing music professionally.

Watching her on stage, it's hard to imagine Diller being intimidated by anything. But she was, and so comedy became her second and, eventually, highly successful career choice.

She even lived in Ypsilanti for a time; her husband worked at the Willow Run Bomber Plant during WWII.

After a stint as an advertising copywriter, Diller's comedy career dawned along with television's role as an American pastime, in the early-1950s. It all started in Oakland, CA with "Phyllis Diller, the Homely Friendmaker," in 1952.

The stand-up career began in 1955 at a place in Southern California called The Purple Onion. She took the stage for the first time on March 7 and didn't get off until 87 straight weeks passed.

Then St. Louis became her home and as the 1960s arrived, Diller began appearing on other people's TV shows throughout the decade, riding the coattails of everyone from Jack Benny to Ed Sullivan to Johnny Carson. Bob Hope invited her along to entertain troops during the Vietnam War.

Throughout, Diller kept poking fun at herself, at Fang, and speaking of funny, it was funny that men laughed along with her, too---not just the fellow housewives in the crowd and watching at home.

This is because Phyllis Diller's humor was everyone's humor. Her perspective might have been female, but her jokes  were unisex. Men may have laughed at Diller because of her outrageous persona on stage; women laughed at her because they could relate to what she was talking about.

Like Joan Rivers (pre-plastic surgery), Diller overstated her bad looks. Like Rivers, Diller was no classic beauty. But, also like Rivers, Diller wasn't a dog, either, especially after some gentle plastic surgery of her own in later years. Through the wild hair and the boa and the mad laugh, Phyllis Diller wasn't an unattractive woman---certainly not the brutal looking one she made herself out to be.

To wit, an old Diller joke goes like this: She's running after a garbage truck pulling away from her curb. "Am I too late for the trash?" she'd yell. The driver's reply: "No, jump right in!"

Fang was fictional, by the way. Diller was married and divorced twice, and had six kids from the first husband. But neither spouse was actually Fang---that husband was her stage husband.

So I guess you could say that Phyllis Diller had three husbands---two real and one made up, for comedic purposes.

There wasn't much comedy in recent years from Diller---just lots of cooking, gardening and, believe it or not, painting. It was a quiet ending to what had been a rather loud life.

In typical Phyllis Diller fashion, she had some skewed advice to her fellow housewives.

"Never go to bed mad," she once said. "Stay up and fight."

Sounds like something Roseanne might have said. But she'd have been the second.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

On Warm Buckets

In the history of the U.S. Presidency since 1865, on seven occasions the sitting president was unable to finish his term. All but one of those were due to death (Richard Nixon's 1974 resignation). And it should be pointed out that another of those seven, Franklin Roosevelt, died in office but in the beginning of his fourth term, which is a Constitutional impossibility these days.

So it's not all that common, of course, when the vice president has to step in and assume the reins of the Commander-in-Chief, mid-term.

Yet there is a fascination with the choice of presidential running mates every four years.

The vice presidency is a funny thing. You're, as they say, a "heartbeat away" from becoming the most powerful man in the world, yet while you're waiting for that to happen, you're as relevant as, well the vice president.

The job is, as former VP John Nance Garner once famously said, "not worth a bucket of warm piss" (yes, he said piss---not spit as has been mostly reported).

But we wait on pins and needles every four summers to see who the non-incumbent party's candidate will choose as his running mate. Yet on Election Day, we don't vote for vice president. No one goes into the voting booth pulling the lever for a man's running mate.

That doesn't stop the analysis or the hand-wringing or the speculation or the talking points, all about a decision that doesn't really have any bearing on the direction of the country.

The candidate usually picks the opposite of himself. If he's a loudmouth, he'll tab a quiet guy. If he's Northern, he'll go Southern. If he's right or left of center, he'll go with someone more central.

He doesn't even have to like the man he's choosing.

In 1960, Massachusetts' John Kennedy, who wrested the nomination from the likes of Texan Lyndon Johnson, felt he needed Johnson's appeal to Southerners and those who weren't crazy about JFK's being Roman Catholic.

So despite not being enamored with each other, the two joined forces on the Democratic ticket for the good of the party. It worked; Kennedy narrowly beat Richard Nixon on Election Day.

Does Paul Ryan matter? History says, not likely

The Kennedy/Johnson thing, though, is an exception to the rule. A presidential candidate's running mate---and indeed, a president's vice president---is mostly there not to embarrass his (or her) boss. Hence the occasional hoof-in-mouth Joe Biden, who sometimes makes Barack Obama cringe, no doubt.

Even dunderheads like Dan Quayle didn't keep his candidate from winning.

Did Sarah Palin prevent John McCain from beating Obama in 2008? Well, she likely didn't help, although I assure you the race was between McCain and Obama, not Palin and Biden.

Paul Ryan is Mitt Romney's choice for vice president. Immediately after being picked, Ryan's record on Medicare became the star of the day's 24-hour news cycle. Polls show that, several days after being selected, Ryan hasn't changed the Obama/Romney numbers all that much, if at all.

Which is how it should be. Which is how it isn't treated, until Election Day, when voters vote for president, not vice president.

John Nance Garner knew that better than anyone.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

BLT Must Have TLC

Adam Richman, the moon-faced foodie from The Travel Channel, has been setting out across America to find the country's best sandwich.

There are 12 finalists in "Adam Richman's Best Sandwich in America," which airs on TTC Wednesdays at 9:00pm.

Detroit is represented, as the Yardbird sandwich from Slows BBQ is among the final 12.

In today's Freep, food writer Sylvia Rector writes that Slows chef Brian Perrone tosses smoked, pulled chicken with sauteed mushrooms and then adds cheddar, applewood bacon and a special sweet-and-tangy mustard sauce.

Sounds scrumptious, as do these sandwiches in Rector's story. But they all have one thing in common: a strong hint of hoity-toity-ness.

Nowhere in Richman's series or in Rector's story, which tells of the Freep's 2008 attempt to find the Best Sandwich in Metro Detroit, will you see a true American classic.

Give me a good ole BLT (or two) and you can have all your fancy-shmancy sammies.

Is there anything better, really, than freshly fried, crisp bacon layered with ripened tomatoes and crispy (not wilted) lettuce, lightly slathered with mayonnaise and sitting between two slices of toasted bread?

The only thing not good about a BLT is the price of the B.

Honestly, as much as I love bacon, I don't know why anyone would purchase it if it's not on special.

I can't see spending upwards of $5 on a pound of Oscar Meyer or other "name brand" bacon.

We wait till those glorious two-for-$5 specials appear at our local market. Then we snatch up a couple of pounds and go to town.

And watch out for those pseudo specials, where the markets offer 2 12-oz. packages for $5. That's really only a pound-and-a-half for five bucks, which is tantamount to about $3.33 per pound.

I sometimes make and eat a BLOT, which is simply a BLT with slices of onion.

Crisp is the operative word, however, when talking BLT. Everything that has to do with the sandwich, save the tomato, ought to be crisp; the bacon can't be gummy, the lettuce can't be wilted and the toast can't be soggy. Or else, the sandwich loses much of its appeal.

And oh, what an appeal it has.

Gathering the family around the kitchen table for a bunch of "serve yourself" BLTs is a great answer to the nightly question, "What's for dinner?"

If you have the patience to baby the bacon during cooking, then you've survived half the BLT battle. A proper crisping of two pounds of bacon in a frying pan can take upwards of 30-45 minutes; anything less will result in under cooked, gummy bacon, which is like a tough, overcooked filet mignon in terms of kitchen nightmares.

The tomatoes ought to be ripe and juicy---not orange and hard, like the ones found on a cheap diner's tossed salad in winter time.

The mayonnaise must be present but not overly so. It's the goofy uncle of the sandwich, and we all know how obnoxious and insufferable a goofy uncle can be.

The lettuce should be Romaine, if possible, and freshly bought. It has to be able to withstand the bacon's warmth and the tomato's juiciness. Wilted, old lettuce can torpedo a BLT's flavor and feel slimey in your mouth.

The bread ought to be white---not Italian, French or (gasp!) anything Pita. I might get some static here, but I maintain that a traditional BLT tastes best on sliced white bread, lightly toasted.

Cut that sucker in half, diagonally, and you'll have your own Sandwich of the Year.

This BLT isn't stacked exactly as I would do it, but it looks tasty

As for how to layer it, that's up to you. I place the bacon on first, then the lettuce, then the tomato. If it's a BLOT, the onion goes on between the lettuce and the tomato. Only the top slice of toast gets swiped with mayonnaise. But that's just me.

One more thing: I like to not put my BLT down once I start eating it. They tend to fall apart if properly stacked. So grasp the sandwich with both hands and then after biting into it, gently release one hand while keeping the other on the sammy, to guard against self-destruction.

It's an American classic, I tell you, and it's not just for lunch. BLTs with a soup of choice make a proper dinner.

Make sure you have a bag of fresh potato chips ready to complete your plate. Something pickled works nice, too, as a relish.

If you like the sophisticated sandwiches that Richman is hopping, skipping and jumping to try, or the ones Rector judged in the Free Press, God bless you.

Just give me a BLT, made the way described above, and I won't be missing out on a thing.

I might be more thirsty than you, but it's a small price to pay.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Communication Breakdown

You ever get the feeling that retail companies make changes that are for their own good, as opposed to that of their customers?

Or, to be more specific, they purport to use the wonders of technology to ostensibly make things go smoother for us, when in fact you get the sneaking suspicion the advantages are enjoyed totally by them.

Take voice activation, for example.

You likely deal with this all the time when you call the (ironically) phone company, cable/dish company, or any of the major utilities.

The recorded message comes on, asking you, basically, what the hell you want.

If there was a human being on the other end of the line, the conversation would be about as brief as this:

Human being at company: Thank you for calling Acme Company. How may I help you? (or, "How may I direct your call?")

You: Hi...I'd like to discuss my bill please.

Human being: OK, let me transfer you to the billing department.

You: (delighted with the efficiency) Thank you!

Elapsed time: less than 15 seconds, most likely.

Instead, thanks to voice activation, the recording asks you to, in your own words, "describe the purpose of your call."

Which you do, by saying things like "I'd like to discuss my bill" or a variation thereof.

Which would be great, if the automated system actually understood you the first time---or the second.

"I'm sorry," the recording says, "I'm having trouble understanding the purpose of your call."

And it asks, again, for you to verbalize why you're calling.

Elapsed time: a whole lot longer than 15 seconds.

Really, would a return to something like this be so bad?

This goes on a while longer, and God forbid you clear your throat, because the system takes that as "talking" and will stop what it's doing to tell you that it couldn't translate your throat clearing into words.

The bottom line is that these automated, voice-activated systems don't provide the customer with any advantage or time-saving. They exist strictly to make life easier for the company, i.e. so they don't have to pay anyone to answer the phones in switchboard-like fashion.

I have spent, no joke, several minutes trying to get an automated system to understand why I am calling and how to proceed, including hanging up and trying again. It's like a twisted game of 21st century charades as you try to get a computer, essentially, to understand your human voice's intentions.

When the simple matter of routing a call to its proper avenues is stymied by technology, when a good old fashioned person-to-person conversation would do the trick instead---that's when I get cranky about automated phone systems.

I wonder how many jobs could be re-created if the automated systems took a backseat to a switchboard operator?

Tell me the purpose of this technology, in your own words.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

A Savior Among Them?

It's been almost 40 years since the election of a Detroit mayor has had even a sniff of excitement and suspense to it.

It was back in 1973, when Coleman Young, a rabble-rousing Civil Rights proponent, squared off against incumbent Roman Gribbs. Young became the city's first black mayor.

And to this day, Gribbs remains Detroit's last white mayor.

Once Young got a toe hold in the mayor's office, there wasn't anyone who could slow him down, let alone stop him.

1977. 1981. 1985. 1989.

In all those elections, Young cruised to victory. Even U.S. Rep. John Conyers' brief run in '89 was ineffective against Hizzoner's machine.

The 1993 election, won by Dennis Archer, had a smidgen of suspense, but Archer was seen as the anti-Young and the city was in the mood for a change---at least in terms of personality and age.

Nothing suspenseful or all that important about the 1997 election, either, which kept Archer in office for four more years.

In 2001, Kwame Kilpatrick was elected, but there was a feeling of fait accomplit about that campaign.

I would say that 2001 was the last time the City of Detroit had its hopes truly raised by an incoming mayor. It was a turning point that, sadly, turned the wrong way.

Had Kwame done with the mayor's job what he could have---with the talent and charisma he possessed---Detroit would have gone down a much rosier path than the one it's currently on.

Kilpatrick had it all and he wasted it. I maintain it's one of Urban America's saddest stories. Ever.

So here we are in 2012, a little more than a year before the next Detroit mayoral election.

This one has the potential to be not only the most suspenseful, but the most important, period, since Young's 1973 win over Gribbs.

The new mayor---or Dave Bing, if he's re-elected, will preside over Detroit in perhaps its darkest hour. And that's saying something.

Mike Duggan: Detroit's first white mayor in 40 years?

There's the financial mess, of course. But that's only part of it. There's the very future of Detroit as a viable big U.S. city. There's a broken infrastructure and the need to somehow coax and cajole businesses to both plant stakes and keep from pulling them up and leaving.

There's the ever-growing problem of kids without dads, one of the worst school systems in America, rampant crime (including too many children dying violently), and an overall malaise and increase in pessimism among the crucial suburbanites who simply don't believe in Detroit anymore.

Into this morass will step the mayor, and it's not too dramatic to suggest that where Detroit goes from here will determine whether it will make it, or not.

So the players are these, most likely: Bing, who is being coy but who insiders believe will run again; Mike Duggan, the head of the Detroit Medical Center and a man steeped in machine politics and someone known as a doer, not just a talker---and someone who is making private noises about running; and perhaps current Wayne County Sheriff and former Detroit Police Chief Benny Napoleon, who spoke openly the other day about a 2013 run and how he understands crime like nobody town.

Duggan, of course, is white, and there hasn't been a white mayor of Detroit since (drumroll please) Roman Gribbs.

The 2013 mayoral campaign in Detroit figures to be the most intense, most crucial, and ultimately the most important in the city's history.

For a change.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Life's Ups and Downs

Just take a pill! Just drink a shot!

If you watch TV advertising these days, it seems as if the country needs help going to sleep and waking up, and with plenty of things in between.

Like my lovely wife so astutely pointed out, "It's like this country has turned into one big Elvis Presley."

Yeah---or Michael Jackson.

Meaning, TV advertisers look at us like the late rock-and-roll and pop stars, who infamously would take gobs of pills and other meds to sleep, and gobs more to get themselves back up, and gobs more just to get through the day.

I'm uneasy as to where we're headed.

Last night it struck me. I've never professed to be a fast learner.

It was a commercial for a sleep aid that set me off. I started to think of the fancy-shmancy "sleep number" beds and other sleep aids I see advertised, which led me to think of the 5 Hour Energy spots and others similar.

The 5 Hour Energy commercials stick in my craw. They dismiss coffee as either taking too long to prepare or not "lasting long enough." Why bother with coffee, the ads say, when you can just grab a shot and down it on your way out the door?

It makes me uneasy to think that we can so casually promote ingesting things into our body to wake up and again to go to sleep.

Look, I know a lot of people need help getting to sleep. I have been the victim of insomnia on many an occasion. I also know popping pills to assist in sleep can be dangerous. I can only imagine how much more dangerous it becomes when you combine that with downing energy drinks during the day.

It all seems just so unnatural.

No, thank you

And as far as these fancy, expensive beds go, who can't sleep on a bed? A regular, good old-fashioned bed?

I can hear the bad back people right now.

Yes, I know some sleep better on firm mattresses and some sleep better on soft ones.

Fine. but do you need to spend thousands of dollars on a bed? Just buy a new mattress for a fraction of the cost.

And as far as waking up and getting through the day, try getting more sleep---naturally.

Something about swallowing a pill at night to come down and slugging a shot of God knows what in the morning to get back up, seems like a dangerous path down which to go.

Are we turning into mini versions of Elvis and the King of Pop?

That's Pop---as in popping pills.

If we are, count me among the anomalies, thank goodness.