Monday, November 15, 2010

This Is a Total Tumblr Post

"...People are always asking me why don’t I write protest songs, political
songs. Well, love is a serious business.”

The righteousness of that last stance seems a bit extreme; the number of pop songs that aren’t love songs is statistically insignificant.

--Eli (Paperboy) Reed/Rob Hoerburger

(Emphasis mine.)

From "Can a Nerd Have Soul?"

Monday, July 19, 2010

About Those Hideous Men...

...None of them seriously led on a woman, for years, over their interest. They dated the women, had relationships or encounters with them, but they were never stringing them along in some nefarious "situation" while the girl wanted to be with them.

Something I noticed that happens far too often, and is considered quite a grave sin, yet not represented here.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Men Behaving Badly…And Then There Are the Women

The last post I wrote was about the Sex and the City movie. I did see it, finally, although in a much different environment than the last one. I expected to hate it, I really did. But I found that even though it is many things the critics say it is (long, ridiculous, heavy-handed), it is also very, very enjoyable, and quite funny. And of course, I was captivated by all the articles denouncing the terrible reviews, defending the movie, even as they acknowledged it wasn’t good.

But time passed. I watched two movies I actually had wanted to see for awhile, and planned to write a joint post on: I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, both stories based on books about terrible, awful men and their terrible, awful behavior. No apologies were given. Both books were bestsellers.

And then I realized, even though I have seen all three of these movies spaced out over the course of the last month, that all three were touching upon the same issues. Here I try, not very well, to make sense of it all.


I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell
is marketed as the raunchiest, craziest bacchanal, a road trip/buddy movie to rival The Hangover. Based on a true-life account of a womanizing law school grad, the movie tries to give shape and story to the book’s outlandish episodes, including redemption for the movie’s central character, Tucker Max. It’s not funny, though trying to figure out why is tough. It’s not a bad movie; it’s certainly watchable, but no, it’s not even remotely close to The Hangover, save for plot.

Matt Czuchry is the quintessential charming rogue, always with an answer for the ladies, yet back with his friends, he can charmingly degrade ‘em all. He’s always on the lookout for the next lay, the next sexual experience, ready for a new story. His appeal is his outlandishness, as girls are always ready to nail his sexist attitudes to his face. His comeuppance in the film is supposed to be gratifying for the audience—he’s not supposed to get away with calling a girl a “cum dumpster”—but instead it’s trite, predictable. Let the guy roam free; nobody believes he’s real anyway.

Czuchry was Logan on Gilmore Girls, a deceptively similar character to the one he plays here: another charming, rich playboy, who glided through school despite all his professors wanting to strangle him. What’s glaring obvious in the movie is his pedigree, though it’s not mentioned: Tucker is able to toss money at everything. If the stripper, girls or his friends have problems, he throws money at it. A row of 10 special shots is $80? No problem. He doesn’t flinch, and while his buddies, being law students, are conscious of money, he isn’t. Nothing fazes him, and he has the smarts to outwit anyone. He is a lawyer.

What was realistic was the dialogue with his friends. The stories are lifted from the book, and possibly some of the dialogue, but while Czuchry isn’t funny, I did believe that a law student like him, who had a comeback for everything, would talk as intelligently and offensively as he did. The movie sags as the movie reaches its denouement, since we know where this is headed. Of course, things end well—the bitter buddy has found a new love, Tucker learns his lesson. The biggest, and what’s supposed to be the funniest scene, completely falls flat in a way that’s appalling; it’s so much better in the book. It’s kind of sad to see I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell bow down to generic story, missing the no-holds-barred tone of the book, to try to garner an audience that didn’t materialize.

However, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is what the title promises—a depressed, mopey grad student (Julianne Nicholson) conducts brief interviews with men about sex, love, and relationships. It’s all dark and cruel. She says almost nothing throughout the movie, recording these monologues. She is constantly followed by men telling tales of conquest and lust, or they just happen upon her as she’s studying in Starbucks, and her tape recorder is always present. The story is told nonlinearly, and we find out her reasoning for conducting this research—all in the name of feminism, she says.

This movie is largely lifted from the novel, with entire sections of the movie nearly word-for-word. Some of the editing and setups are very postmodern, in fitting with David Foster Wallace’s work, with odd jump-cuts and characters in and out of scenes they’re narrating. It’s very arty and quite pretentious, with a lot of preeny intellectualism that each character affects. Partly because of the setting (and the fact that the book was published in the ‘90s), it doesn’t feel contemporary; there’s talk of rape and love and fantasies and the cruel way that men treat women, but nobody talks like this, in long, artfully constructed sentences.

I’ve read both books, and the wide spaces both stories occupy seem to posit men as these awful creatures. Brief Interviews is not a story that should be seen when in a bad mood, like after a breakup. Nor, really, is Beer in Hell, as both will give ammunition to the phrase “men are cowards”, uttered in the former film. Both stories namecheck feminism, and the men go out of their way to talk about it, how they view it, how they view women—trying to discover what they want, give them what they want. It’s all syntactical gymnastics, and following the logic of most of the monologues gets a little confusing at times. All the men purport to be “honest” in the films, but in Beer in Hell they’re routinely emasculated (especially the groom at the center of the story, but his was the weakest plot), while the men in Brief Interviews are aggressive and gregarious. Sara, the grad student, just takes it all in.

She barely reacts, and her passivity works against her. It’s hard to watch her, especially in some of the more confrontational moments when she is hijacked by monologues by her ex-boyfriend and an interview subject on rape, and not wish her to say something, to scream out in anger. At least in Beer in Hell, the women have their say. They all routinely attack Tucker, spouting off how sexist he is. Tucker will perform his own syntactical gymnastics, but with less snooty intellectualism. And they do have their comeuppance, since the audience is meant to understand that Tucker does really care, that he just wants to have fun, and that (by the end) he’s slowly learning to grow up. That’s not the pat ending in Brief Interviews: Sara is still sad, and her project is merely reinforcing the terribleness of the world, the awfulness of men—even when they care, it’s all wrapped in layers and layers of self-loathing and fear. These men just need to get a grip on themselves. Nothing much really “happens”; the movie is an excuse for a lot of excellent actors to act, though the dialogue often sounds stilted and too actor-y. John Krasinski, the director, is also Sara’s ex, and he is very much the opposite of his nice-guy persona on The Office. Frankly, even he saying the word “bitch” just sounds unnatural.

Both these movies about men behaving badly were supposed to be fun, in a way, just a general romp through awful actions we’d never dare to do ourselves. That’s the selling point. But the Sex and the City movie, also marketed as a fun romp, actually was—though you wouldn’t believe it from the press.

I loved the movie. Yes, I did. I laughed. I had a smile on my face nearly the entire time. It’s ridiculous, sexist, and most definitely offensive. And yet, I enjoyed it mightily.

It is not the Sex and the City of the television show, but I knew that already. The emotional stakes were low, and the Aiden storyline was stupid. Carrie herself was dumb—and most of her storyline could have been avoided had she just told Big outright how she felt. But the nibbles were there—Carrie’s struggle to find a way to make marriage work for her, done her way, felt true. All of the other women were as one-note as possible. I cringed at Miranda being the peppy tour guide, at Samantha loudly being as crass as possible, and at Charlotte because she had nothing better to do. Surprisingly, what none of the reviews mentioned, in between lambasting the movie for every possible offense, was that the movie did try to put the story in context. One of Carrie’s friends gently reminds her of the days when she couldn’t even get Big to stay over, and now she’s mad that he’s always around (“A little perspective is always good”). They do mention the recession, how things have changed since the last movie, and refer to events in both that film and in the canon of the television show. That meant a lot. I also appreciated how the movie tried to bring home the message that life is always hard, no matter the stage. This, unfortunately, was largely lost through the ostentatious outfits and accessories, and the silliness of the plot.

I found the movie beautiful. All the actresses looked fantastic. The colors! The clothes! They looked like what they were—women in their 40s and 50s, well-dressed, with money. Comparing them to younger versions of themselves is unfair. Yes, the movie went over-the-top, but that was part of the show; it was just more of it in the movie, just like the screwball sensibilities that have always underlined the humor of the series.

I completely understand the anger. If I was a mother, the scene between Charlotte and Miranda discussing parenting (“How do they do it without help?”) would be ridiculously condescending and offensive, even more so than it is. Yet I felt that that line was supposed to be a sendup, as sometimes the over-the-top hysterics of nearly every character was portrayed. Maybe it was on us because we took it so seriously.

Maybe that’s another failure of this genre. The backlash to the backlash repeatedly pointed out that some of the vituperative criticisms were unfair, that men’s movies do this all the time…not just The Hangover and Hot-Tub Time Machine, but James Bond. Frankly, The Hangover is an apt comparison to both I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell and Sex and the City 2. It too was filled with a stupid plot, slapstick humor, and a helpful heap of sexism, in both obvious and not-so-obvious ways. Yet because Sex and the City 2 had the balls to showcase a completely different side—and do it on their terms—it raised a lot more ire than the usual entries in the genre.

All three of these movies—Sex and the City 2, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men—are variations on a theme. Yes, two are supposed to be popcorn, but all three purport to have Statements. All three movies were written and directed by men, a not-insignificant fact. It’s a tossup whether Brief Interviews is supposed to be revelatory about men, or just another dark comedy on the subject, or even trying to make a statement about women. It’s clear, though, from watching these movies, even as they claim to be about (and for) one sex, it’s impossible not to include the other in some form. Sometimes it’s trite, or boring, or pretentious, or so ridiculous that it’s impossible to believe anything. But all know there is humor in the subject.

Further reading:
What Went So Horribly Wrong with Sex and the City 2? A Critic and Fan Debate the Demerits
Now, In Defense of SATC 2
Un-Innocents Abroad: The Drubbing
Why the SATC 2 Reviews Were Misogynist
All of the reviews I read of Brief Interviews (three, after I watched) were very accurate, but this one's perhaps the best.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Not So Sexy Anymore

I'm going to see the Sex and the City movie. It's one of those things. It's not that I'm dying to see it, not that I expect it will be great, it's not that I think it's worth the $10+. I'm going because, I guess, it's one of those "events" things, though I'm really looking forward to seeing a bunch of friends I don't see that often.

I was (am) a big fan of the television show. I wrote a paper focusing on the season finale, and then retooled it a year later for a conference that I ended up submitting something else to. And when the first movie came out, I was super excited, and I went with a big group of girls, and we laughed and gasped and took it all in. It wasn't until later, on rewatch, without the audience and the expectations, that I realized that the film truly was not good.

I've seen the trailer for the sequel. There's not much to it. I've seen the ads, and the critiques with the photoshopped arms, legs, and hips. I kind of dread where the story will go, but I had that feeling when the movie was over--where else can they go? Women's lives, at least in story form, seem to follow the same trajectory of men and kids, and I didn't want to see Carrie pregnant. But what else will they do? I lamented to a friend, and we bitched. I don't want the movies to be part of my memory of the series.

Neither does Hadley Freeman, who posted her own response to the movies (Spoilers):

But the truth is, the show was fantastic: smart, funny, warm and wise, a far cry from the "middle-aged women having embarrassing sex with various unsuitable partners" cliche that the above writer used. It was about four smart women, three of whom had no interest in getting married. Candace Bushnell's original book on which the show was based was good, but the show was great.

But unlike in the films, that's not all there was, and that wasn't all the characters cared about. What elevated the show way above the normal chickflick tat, and way above the films, was that it had genuine emotional truth. It sang with lines that you knew had come from real life ("How can I have this baby? I barely had time to schedule this abortion" being quite possibly my all-time favourite) and plots that went beyond the limiting convention of cliche. Samantha's breast cancer, for example, showed not only how scary and sad cancer (obviously) is, but also how boring, sweaty and plain inconvenient it is, too.
My thesis in my Sex and the City paper was that the show was so successful because it stuck to this emotional truth. The movie, despite trying for it with Miranda's storyline, completely missed the mark. The men were barely involved, and when they were, they were out of character. The movie was just plain bad; there was nothing there, and spent too much time on things no one cared out (Mexico) and drew out what was unnecessary (Big and Carrie's roller coaster wedding).

There's been a lot written how the show increasingly focused on fashion and the "luxe life" in its later years, especially in the movies. Michael Patrick King, as a response to both the recession and the first movie, has purposely made the sequel light and airy, with the escapist trip to Abu Dhabi the centerpiece of this theme. Yes, it made it easier to shoot, and was different. But it was also a big "huh? ...ok" for the audience.

The fashion was fun, sometimes. But I always maintained it wasn't about that for true fans--they connected to the emotional issues the show brought up, the questions, no matter how serious or frivolous. They could connect to the women's tribulations, no matter what their actual lives were like.

Hopefully I will enjoy the movie, and it won't be a total waste. But I wonder: Do all women's entertainments have to be this way? Do they have to be like Eat Pray Love, an escapist journey, a fantasy that most of us won't be able to experience?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Another Reason Why Lady Gaga Is Awesome

I love a lot of things about this picture of Lady Gaga. I love her hair, the waves, and the color. I love the dark lipstick, the open mouth. I love her crossed arms. I love the metallic contraption “top” she’s wearing, the sparks flying from her nipples. But most of all, I love the fact that Lady Gaga has arm hair.

It’s subtle. It’s noticeable in the full picture in the magazine (Time 100 Most Influential People), the faint brown hairs. I love that Lady Gaga, who is a very Italian brunette when she is/was Stefani Germanotta, did not get rid of her arm hair. I love that she didn’t feel forced to wax it off or bleach it or otherwise hide the fact that’s what her arms look like.

To me that’s what’s most remarkable about this picture, not that she has sparks flying out of her nipples or that the contraption looks cold and uncomfortable, not even wondering how in the world that thing was made or how it works. I’m not shocked by that, nor her orgasmic expression. All of these things have been seen before, whether on her or by other pop stars. It’s the fact that we see what her arms normally look like—no artifice—in a picture promoting artifice. Lady Gaga’s mode, throughout all the wacky, weird costumes, is to show off who she is, that people should uniquely be themselves, and she makes statements through her art. Having her arm hair just existing, not photoshopped out, is just another way of saying, this is who I am, and don’t try to change me. Don’t try to make me conform to unrealistic and silly and costly beauty standards. I am who I am, and I happen to have hair on my arms.

Live Like We're Goners? I Don't Think So

Rachel Maddow has it right.

I’ve always hated the idea, personified in Kris Allen’s “Live Like We’re Dying” and Jordan Sparks’ “Tattoo”, that we must always live like every day is our last. These sentiments, these platitudes, are meant to goad us into action, to live bravely, to do risky things like go for that opportunity, to proclaim our love, those moments that we’re scared of that form the climax of the plot in any cheesy, predictable story.

We should absolutely not live every moment as if we’re dying. First, we simply can’t. There are moments in life where we have to do boring things—run errands, go to the bathroom, do homework, clean. These are not earth-shattering moments, and while they might lead us to pursue our dream, they are the necessary drudgework that is part of life. We can’t pretend these moments don’t exist, or consistently infuse them with meaning. We feel sick, we want to sleep in, we spend too much time online or on video games. Not every moment is meant for meaning; it is everything added together that becomes something more. Two, if we tried to live every moment as if it was life or death, we’d be in a constant state of anxiety and heightened emotions, and a person can’t live like that. Necessary things, like sleep and food, would get pushed out, because we don’t have time for petty things if we are dying!In that mindset, everything is short term; there are no considerations for consequences. Yeah, that opportunity might be amazing, but is it worth it after tomorrow? After next year? Is it harmful? Proclaiming your love is always viewed as this thing that, while scary, will always work out…but what if it doesn’t? What if everything goes to pot, and you were better off not doing it? But it doesn't matter, because you have to live every second like it's your last one!

There’s an episode of House where Wilson, after telling a patient that he only a few months to live, realizes that his disease is in remission and he will be fine. The patient is angry and wants to sue Wilson—the expectation that he was dying made his life fun for the short-term, and he was showered with parties and accolades. Now he has nothing to live for. He had lived for the present, and now that it was extended, there was nothing left. If we lived every day like we were dying, we would also feel this way. We told all our loved ones how we felt (nauseatingly), we took our risks, we said FU when it didn’t work out...and eventually we’ll be left with a shell of who we are, since we didn’t listen to anyone and didn’t prepare for the consequences.

So for the love of God, don’t tell me to live my life to the fullest, how I need to constantly run on all cylinders, to make sure that every moment counts. Because not every moment does, and not every moment can.

I’m too busy just trying to get by.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Daria on DVD!


I have a few late series-eps on VHS, taped from a marathon before premiering the movie finale (I also have "Is It Fall Yet?"). But nothing compares to the whole season. I hope there will be extras, especially commentary.

I post this mainly to highlight this post on Bitch, a homage to the series. Also noteworthy is the clip from Roseanne. I too loved Darlene Connor, and this scene makes me tear up.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Thank You

But Lindsay Lohan's personal problems, whatever they may be, are not the true issue here. She's 23-years-old and being ripped to shreds in the press mostly because she goes out at night. That's what the media is really focused on. With all the boozing on college campuses, after-work happy hours and box-wine toting moms, why do we have a problem with this one young woman staying out late (and possibly having a cocktail)?

I'm not saying that Lindsay doesn't have issues. She might. But her biggest issue is her unfair treatment by the tabloids, entertainment shows and TMZs of the world. Consider Shia La Beouf, who is also 23 years old. He started his comedy career when he was 10, and, like Lindsay, was a Disney property, starring in Even Stevens and Holes before he turned 18. Transformers is one of the top-grossing films of the decade. And yet: Shia has been arrested for criminal trespassing (at a Walgreens) and he has a metal plates and screws in his hand thanks to crashing a car after drinking. Even though the accident was not his fault, the officers at the scene smelled booze on Shia's breath, and he has a knuckle he will "never be able to move again."

While these are two different people in two different situations, Shia is never on the cover of a tabloid with the words "rock bottom" printed in giant yellow letters. Like Britney before her, Lindsay has become America's favorite person to complain about, feel sorry for, make fun of and tear down. It seems like everyone has an idea of how a young woman is "supposed" to behave. If she doesn't comply? Anger and vitriol and mockery. When Leonardo DiCaprio was drinking, hanging with models and out every night with his "pussy posse", no one claimed he'd hit rock bottom.

The point is: Lindsay's living her life, working out her issues, but at this point, she can't even try to to something right — make a documentary in India; design for Ungaro — without being eviscerated, judged, ridiculed and trashed. It seems like we expect certain things of our little girls, even when they're not so little anymore. Maybe we're angry that they've grown up, or that they're not the things we hoped for… But our expectations should not be their concern. Lindsay should only have to be and do the things she hopes for.

--"In Defense of Lindsay Lohan"
Yo go, girl. Jezebel is on a roll. Lindsay, I still love ya.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

That Rivers Cuomo Thing...

Empathy is hard—especially, sad to say, when you are fucking someone and it's not going quite so well as you'd planned. If you add in the whole gender thing, it gets even harder. Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together. They do. And then they call each other bitches and cunts and dumb motherfuckers, assholes and alcoholics and overprivileged Ivy League elitist shits, failed writers, failed people, people with daddy issues and mommy issues and control issues and abandonment issues, just Issues, horrible Issues, Issues that cannot be forgiven; they accuse each other of crimes against God and nature and political engagement; they accuse each other of being just like their mothers (never satisfied) and their fathers (2 bold). And some of them have recording careers, so they take it public. Is that so wrong?
My favorite paragraph from this excellent piece.

I know the basics about Rivers Cuomo--the Japanese girl fetish, the weird sex obsessions, his pathetic emo songs. I never was a fan, purely because I didn't like the music. Some of the stuff here is old, some of it is new, a lot just hasn't been posted in this fashion or in such a high-profile (to some) way. But her points are substantial. The essay does speak to a very specific period/demographic. If I had been older, or a different girl, I might have related to it more.

Very well-written article. My favorite of Sady's. (And she links to Emily Gould! Automatic plus.)

We need more criticism like this, more female-specific criticism. I'd like to be the female Chuck Klosterman (I don't even want the idea of female version to be included here, even though music/pop culture critics desperately need some women in their ranks), but Sady Doyle is on her way.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Really? Glamour? Magazine of the Year?

Glamour was recently named magazine of the year.

I'm not quite sure why.

I've subscribed to Glamour for the last year. I only did so because of their 75th anniversary promotion, where I could get a year's worth for 75 cents. Yep, 12 issues for less than a dollar. What the hell? As far as women's magazines go, I actually like Glamour, detesting their nearest rival, Cosmopolitan. Glamour was more real, and I liked that they incorporated recipes and real advice, at least in the back. They had the obligatory "serious story", addiction or do-gooders, now with Katie Couric interviewing some notable female. All well and good.

But after a few months, it was wearying. The topics were the same, of course: men, relationships, food, eating, exercise, fashion, beauty. I wondered how those working at the magazine didn't get bored of the repetition. The advice was usually sound, but repetitive, and occasionally contradictory. I waded through the "girl with the belly bulge" and the Crystal Renn spreads; meh. Crystal Renn is beautiful and not plus sized in the least, as I've noted before. I no longer felt that the magazine was the exception to others in its category; maybe I just got used to it, maybe the novelty wore off. But I also wasn't looking at other young-women magazines, either, so it became just another Glamour. I knew I wasn't going to renew my subscription when I subscribed, but now I didn't care.

But besides the sameness, I was saddened to see that women's magazines "cleaned up" certain celebrities:

Lady Gaga and Rihanna are known for dressing explicitly, in wild getups, but they are stripped of their individuality; whitewashed, you could say. There's no crazy makeup, no funky fashion choices, nothing that should be exposed covered up and nothing covered up that should be exposed. They're not even in fun colors: Lady Gaga is uncharacteristically in all white, or off-white, as if to appear pure, but she looks out of place and strangely bland, since she blends in with the background. It's the text that speaks, not her. Rihanna at least looks happy, if girlish, a woman full of spunk and personality. This might be to offset the serious interview inside, promoting her album Rated R, both which explore her dark and volatile year. But her hair is gelled back; we are not to notice her funky, unconventional style choices, just like we aren't meant to view Lady Gaga as she wants to be seen. Maybe that explains her detached look.

I see this as suppressing both women's natural personalities and style to favor a more acceptable form of female expression, both in beauty and personality. I can understand why a cover picture of Lady Gaga wouldn't have her face covered, but I don't see why she has to appear in such an awful getup, one she would never wear anywhere else. I don't see how prettifying Rihanna makes her ordeal any better, except take away her right to express herself as she chooses.

So Glamour, magazine of the year? You might talk the talk of inclusion of expression, proudly showing off your Crystal Renn glamour shots, but until you really show how real women are, capturing their life as they live it (not as you wish them to see it), you don't deserve this title.

Cross-posted at Dissection and Introspection.

Friday, April 23, 2010

I Know Christina Hendricks is Sexy. Stop Telling Me.

I have nothing against Christina Hendricks, but articles like this make me mad.

The majority of attention Christina Hendricks gets revolves around her figure. Even when she graced the cover of New York magazine, the shot focused on her chest, and the piece inside the magazine was little more than a few paragraphs below an enormous picture of her torso. The pieces on the actress usually mention little more than her role as “the curvaceous secretary Joan Holloway on AMC’s Mad Men”, continuing to extol her beauty and wonderful body.

And of course, she has a wonderful figure, one that, as these articles continue to tell me, isn’t celebrated in modern culture, but was in the halcyon days celebrated in the show she appears in. Her figure is also accentuated very nicely by the character she plays, a sexy woman who is known by her sex appeal, and by the period clothes her character requires. Those foundation garments were made for women like Christina Hendricks, relegating the other females in the cast to look poor and skinny when compared to her.

But the more I hear how wonderful and beautiful Christina Hendricks is, the more sad and disappointed and annoyed I get. I’d like to read more about Christina Hendricks the actress, the person behind the body. I’d like to hear about Joan. But I’d also like to stop hearing about how she makes everyone else look paltry and unattractive by comparison. Even in her Esquire photos (where she is close to unrecognizable), it’s clear that they make her boobs pop even more than what should be considered normal, squeezing her into a smaller size. And Hendricks also has one of those figures that isn’t that common, since she has a near-perfect hourglass figure, perfectly proportioned waist and hips. Of course many girls want to look like her.

Aside from the fact that the Esquire survey in discussion is completely unfair, articles that tout Hendricks' size always have to mention “the competition”—those models and actresses that aren’t built like her, those “thin” ones that apparently get all the attention. I’m not suggesting that thinner girls don’t get their share of attention, but there is always the constant, insinuating put down apparent when one is lauding Hendricks’ body:

Winning one for shapely women everywhere, Hendricks is not an anorexia-induced size two. In the accompanying Esquire article she waxed poetic about pork and deep fryers–when was the last time you heard Kate Moss talk about beer battered anything?
“Anorexia-induced size two.” First of all, as someone who was in the mall today, in fact, looking at some of those “size twos”, I can tell you that they are often bigger than you think. Size twos might be tiny, but it is clothing designers who have consistently made sizes bigger than they should be, causing what is known as “size inflation”. Size twos might be stick-figure thin for models, but in department stores, they really aren’t. By using such a loaded term that connotes disease, the article writers imply that small sizes are automatically bought by women who are sickly. Hyperbole? Maybe a little, but the distinction made—that “curvaceous”, at least the curvaceous that Hendricks embodies, is the antithesis of being skinny—and therefore diseased—is harmful and untrue. Nor is adding that Hendricks is a fan of such unhealthy foods going to bolster the argument that she is practically perfection. If she waxed about cheese or arugula, would that be noted? We’re supposed to take away that Hendricks eats “like a real woman”, and her body reflects this diet (which I seriously doubt. I'm sure she does like those foods, but I bet she doesn’t consist on them, or she wouldn't look like she does.) Is eating pork and beer-battered foods supposed to mean that’s what real women eat, and that the women who don’t (those "anorexic-induced sized twos") are less worthy? That there is automatically a connection, that thin women must be starving themselves if they choose not to eat such “men-approved” foods?

To further add insult to injury, Kate Moss aside, there are plenty of articles about thinner actresses and models that mention what they eat, in these same proud tones. GQ, Esquire’s rival, published a cover story on Hendricks’ costar January Jones a few months ago, and the story opens with Jones professing her love for Chili’s queso, beer and football—all signals that she’s a girl for Real Men. Readers are supposed to note that Jones, like Hendricks, is a fun, unfussy person to be around, and their food preferences obviously showcase this.

These articles, though, at their core, do nothing but make women feel bad about themselves. Women can’t win, as they never fit one standard, and whatever preferences they have about virtually anything can be twisted. I’m tired of hearing, even jokingly, how small sizes are ruining America, of being made to feel like I am less than because I am thin, or that I’m expected to uphold some sort of ideal because of what I look like. I don’t like that I have to go on the defense on this topic, and I don’t like that Christina Hendricks can’t get much press outside of her body. She is a great actress, but we don’t hear enough about that; she is relegated to her fair skin, her red hair, and her breasts. Sure, she uses it to her advantage, and I have no problem with that; I would, too. But let’s stop pretending that she is a womanly ideal and that her very presence demolishes or diminishes all the others who don’t look like her. She is as much of a victim of retouching and the capricious whims of the zeitgeist as anyone else.

Monday, March 22, 2010

This Is Gonna Be Huge

This might be a "woman's picture", but I'd like to see more of them.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


I've been published on AOL!

I am now a music journalist.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

I Love John Mayer

Every review of Battle Studies has mentioned the dichotomy between John Mayer’s music and his personality. His music—ballads of soft wonder—seems to clash with his kooky, frenetic, self-gratifying , outspoken, cocky persona. His tales of chasing tail, accompanied by his arrogant, rambling observations on all manner of life have led him to be labeled a douchebag—indeed, this adjective is routinely so affixed to his name that it’s hard to fathom anything else he should be called. He’s even said that he wants to repurpose the word, to own it, if it’s going to describe him.

Battle Studies is his most engaging album since his 2001 debut, Room for Squares. His personality might have taken over his music the last few years, just as his ever-changing looks have come to define his erratic mindset, but the reason why he remains so popular is intact. Battle Studies offers the same wistfulness, the same longing and defiance that marked his earlier albums, but this time both his personality and art reflect each other.

It’s not totally fair that Mayer is best known for breaking Jennifer Aniston’s heart, something that he acknowledges in recent interviews in RollingStone and Playboy. Both publications, in fact, boast incredibly candid and eye-opening features on the man, a guy who is not lacking in public forums to express himself. Mayer is one of Twitter’s most popular users, with over three million followers; many of his tweets have reached a wider audience thanks to being endlessly repeated for their audacity. Mayer certainly has odd things to say, but he often comments on women and relationships (and not in the Oprah vein), topics that most appreciate. He has a Tumblr, a blog, where he recently dismantled a TMZ “expose”, plus he’s endeared himself by guest-starring on Saturday Night Live and Chappelle’s Show, in addition to just popping up for some fun.

In fact, the more I read his thoughts and hear his opinions, the more I can’t help but love him. Seriously. Rereading both the Playboy and RollingStone pieces, every few sentences I paused to ask: How do you not love John Mayer?

It didn’t matter if he was talking about how fucking Jessica Simpson was a drug, then backtracking to apologize to Aniston’s hypothetical responses, or riffing on sex and masturbation and girls and his ideal relationship, and how he’ll fuck it up. Seriously, how do you not love him?

I realize for many this is a stupid question. But he is cocky, he is funny, he is self aware, he is just all sorts of fun, and that is very attractive. I liked most of Mayer’s music before, even appreciated it (his willingness to write “love songs for no one” in particular), but found some of his biggest hits really lame, songs like “Your Body Is a Wonderland” and “Daughters” that even he is uncomfortable with representing him.

But as his public persona has gotten bigger, it seems to many that his music just doesn’t fit. He’s taken to pronouncements of random topics, and his mind runs a mile a minute, yet his music is slow, adult contemporary at its best. But Battle Studies very much aligns with where he is in his life, his philosophy toward women, relationships, and life. “I have this bond with infinite possibility,” he says in Playboy, “I want to be with myself, still, and lie in bed only with the infinite unknown. That’s 32, man.”

There is a definite tone in Battle Studies that embodies this, even in the world-weary first single, “Who Says”, similar to “Waiting on the World to Change,” the first single off his last album, Continuum. Overall, Battle Studies is about a guy who is contemplating his life—in many of the songs, from “Who Says” to “Perfectly Lonely”, he is comfortable being alone, yet roaming the streets, taking in everything (like the video for the former.)

Mayer is also very much fighting between impulses. That’s another thing that’s consistent between his persona and his music, or at least between the album as a whole and his recent interviews. In between the sadness and contemplation, there’s acceptance, even defiance (“Edge of Desire”, “Who Says”). The closer, “Friends, Lovers or Nothing” is one of those songs that just speaks the truth: “Friends, lovers or nothing / There can only be one / Friends, lovers or nothing / There’ll never be an in-between, so give it up / Friends, lovers or nothing / We can only ever be one / Anything other than yes is no / Anything other than stay is go / Anything less than “I love you” is lying."

Battle Studies is a lovelorn, breakup album (hence the title), with the first three songs making up a sort of arc, relationships as tug of war. You would be forgiven if thinking the female singer on “Half of My Heart” was merely a background player, as Taylor Swift is wasted on this “duet”. But the problem with records like Battle Studies is the famous significant other that underlies the music, the failed relationship(s) that form the backbone of the album. Ooh, so is he talking about Jennifer Aniston here? But thinking about the real people behind the songs is kind of icky. It’s creepy; the general public only has rumors to go on, and usually the little information known is spurious and not very helpful, and can ruin the enjoyment of the art. Sure, sometimes it can enhance the story, if it’s about gleeful revenge, but other times it’s just a block, too factual for the real messages of the story to shine through.

If you’re trying to decipher insights into Mayer’s personal life, Battle Studies will only get you partway. In the interviews, he’s incredibly candid about relationships. On first read, it’s amazing to hear him speak so much about Jennifer Aniston (and Jessica Simpson, and Jennifer Love Hewitt…) Yet this makes him endearing, extremely likeable, even if your mouth is agape, and while surprising, his candor doesn’t come off as exploitative, another skill Mayer has. There are some who say he is ruining his career, but he has addressed some of his more controversial statements and his shame in going overboard, so much so he’s heading into Kanye West territory. He’s so self-aware that it doubles and triples back on him, and with all the different outlets he has (not all controlled by him), it can seem at times that he’s overexposing himself. But that is part and parcel of his personality, his life, and the way he chooses to live.

Mayer strongly supports the notion that he and Jennifer Aniston broke up because of generational differences, that they are in different points in their life. John Mayer is very much a now guy—one who tweets, blogs, is fully immersive in his life and incorporates his fans thusly. Aniston, according to him, doesn’t have the same regard for these services as he does, nor shares the same philosophy, and that drove them apart. But he is quick to assert how much he cares for her, how much he does not want to offend her.

Playboy says Mayer “is beloved (though not universally) as one of the few uncensored stars, speaking with wit and impetuousness”, and his out-and-out genuineness certainly adds to that. Despite his reservations, his backtracking, his incessant commentary on everything, his need to spout off nonsensical and ridiculous and sometimes shocking things, his wit, charm, and goofball sense of himself shine through. He is a fundamentally good guy, not one of those guys who appears to be good on the surface and then is a douchebag, although admittedly this is all a matter of perception and I find his mischievousness fun, not jerky. Sure, he takes pains to distinguish this in interviews, but it’s apparent in his music, too. Mayer has nothing to apologize for (well, except to maybe the women he’s dated for spilling their intimate relations to the press), and Battle Studies is his proof that he and his music are one and the same.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Notes on Blogging, Gender, Technology, House and Julie & Julia

(I posted this here because of the lengthy discussion of Julie & Julia and House. Unfortunately, the House episode is not available online yet, or I would link and quote from it.)

I had a very bloggy week, between watching Julie & Julia and Monday’s episode of House, which both revolved around women whose blogs got the better of them.

Julie & Julia received a lot of press for its portrayal of supportive husbands, on both women’s side. The Times gleefully wrote of Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci’s portrayal of middle-aged passion, but Julie’s husband was a “saint”, so much so that he objected to the label. Much is made of the Childs’ marriage, how passionate they were, but I found Paul Child to be supportive, but distant; in fact, both husbands in the movie were quite bland. Maybe that’s the point—they both were supportive characters, meant to prop up the leads, so they usually are less developed than the protagonists.

But other than that observation, it was Julie’s bloggy passion that stood out, in comparison to this week’s House episode, concentrated on a blogger who goes a little too personal with her diagnosis. Both women get caught up in blogging about their lives, neglecting their significant others, who come to resent their girlfriend’s hobby. (Tip: Get a boyfriend who blogs, or who at least likes the medium as much as you do.) This is reminiscent of Emily Gould’s fantastic bloggy piece in the New York Times nearly two years ago, where she recounts how blogging about her personal life wrecked her relationship and her life. All three women had successful blogs, the real-life ones turning into successful writers. All three were transformed by their hobby, sharing their love with others and eventually having their own audience. Both Julie and Laura Prepon’s Frankie worry too much about their audience; Julie, about actually having one, and Frankie, about what they think. She uses her blog as a crowdsource of opinion, on both the large and small decisions of her life, including the many major medical ones she faces in the episode. Their blogs become their lives, their reason for getting up in the morning. Julie’s Julia Child obsession is fueled by her blogging, and without it the structure of her project would fall apart, as she is documenting her progress. Frankie, too, is obsessed with documenting her life, and despite protestations from her boyfriend, feels she would be lying if she did not faithfully record or retell everything. Julie does not feel this way, though she does consent to not publicizing a fight she has with her husband (though by it being in the movie we presume that it is retold in her book).

The issue here, of course, becomes privacy. Sure, on the surface, Julie Powell’s project sounds fun, if daunting, and not particularly invasive; she is in charge of how much she chooses to reveal, and on the surface a cooking blog would not be one to draw readers.

But of course, that’s too simplistic. One of the women mentioned in the film who actually makes an appearance is Amanda Hesser, a New York Times food writer who made a name for herself (at least to this writer) by writing a column in the Times Magazine in the early part of the ‘00s, “Cooking for Mr. Latte”, about her meals and dates with a certain Mr. Latte, later revealed to be the New Yorker writer Tad Friend. “Cooking for Mr. Latte”, a kind of Sex and the City meets food, certainly had enough dish and romantic intrigue to make it more than just another food column, and, though it was on paper, had a bloggy feel to it, as it chronicled their burgeoning relationship. (The column also became a book.)

So why are all these bloggers women? Why is it that women feel the need to emotionally reveal themselves online, to chronicle their lives? Men seem to go about it in a much more analytical, data-driven fashion; Nicholas Felton has designed a number of what he calls “Personal Annual Reports”, yearly compilations of the minutia that makes up his life, and it’s fascinating: all the restaurants he ate at, the countries he visited, his most played songs on iTunes. Every year, the charts and graphs, not to mention what he actually records, get increasingly complex. (The MIT Media Lab has done similar projects, recording and analyzing personal, daily data of students.) Sure, I already know all the comments, the criticism: even a friend of mine, when I showed him Feltron, responded, “I know the irony of what I'm about to say as a man that [sic] Tweets but that's kind of self absorbed.”

Sure, it’s self-absorbed. But it’s a whole other form of diary, a multimedia one, life writ large. The data aspects makes it so much cooler, because it’s objective, and it’s a form that you can’t argue with; maybe that’s why men like it. There are so many ways to tell a story, and neither is completely right, for each time it’s told, it’s done a little differently, and they all give different sides to the same one.

The Internet, in all its lovely possibilities, has also given us a way to be anonymous and solicit anonymous opinions. That comes across in blogging—again with the choosing to reveal what we want. But there’s also the new ChatRoulette and, services that flip anonymity on its head.

ChatRoulette, memorably introduced to many (including me) via this New York article, is a basic service that automatically turns on a user’s webcam and randomly beams you into someone else’s browser, and they you. The only options are to engage, move on, or turn off. Most outlets have connected it back to the days of the “wild, wild Internet”, before it became safe for minors, where everything and everyone was searchable. Here, it doesn’t matter if your name or your face or your home really belongs to you, as you are only known by your face, and there is no tag—there’s not even a record of who you’ve been connected with. There’s no way to track, no searching, no user names, no login information, no password. Glorious freedom. And yet it’s scary and incredibly intimidating, a party game to play.
is a site, a meme if you like, that lets people ask questions of a particular user. The person can use his or her real name, or a version of it, if the person desires, and those asking the questions can also identify themselves, though they usually stay anonymous. People asking the questions are strangers and friends; maybe you’ll get something good. It’s a version of a Facebook application known as the honesty box, which always got someone in trouble; that’s what honesty tends to do. And yet it’s addicting, in a way, to say too much; God knows in this era of TMI that it’s hard to put a lid on. Lying is contagious too, but it’s confusing as hell; being openly honest, too openly honest, can be about connecting or prolonging the awkward, having something to say, maybe just making a funny.

So we have two sides of a coin here: a site where we are expected to divulge secrets to those asking, and another an interface where we are personally faced with random strangers, no accountability. The first is implicitly about accountability, though we aren’t supposed to be pegged; the second, an escape route if we wish it to be.

But of course, we often occupy on the assumption that more information is better, and that notion led to ChatRoulette map, where users’ IP addresses are tracked to see who is using the service at any time. You do not need to be engaged on ChatRoulette to use ChatRoulette map, as I discovered this afternoon. There’s an option to turn this off, for it ruins the fun for some people. Exposing IP addresses always has a whiff of creepiness, as it feels like Big Brother is coming down to watch.

There are plenty of people that say that both will be a fad, and in Internet world, there are few things that have escaped this designation, one being Facebook. The Internet is both a blessing and a curse, causing us both to escape and feel trapped by our past, and we eagerly take up the call whenever we need to do so.

P.S. I have a account. Ask questions, readers! Also cross-posted on Notes on Popular Culture.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Men are Stupid, But We Love Them Anyway: A Review of "The Marriage Ref"

Men are stupid.

You will be forgiven for believing this is true if all you watch is American television. American sitcoms routinely portray men as being dumb, selfish, boorish and insensitive, and NBC’s “The Marriage Ref” only perpetuates this, with both the men featured wanting what was portrayed as ridiculous, even creepy things.

Each episode of "The Marriage Ref" spotlights two couples, and three celebrity judges weigh in on their predicament. The host then beams the couples into the studio and delivers the verdict. The premiere episode, aired immediately after the closing ceremonies of the Olympics, concentrated on a man who wanted to keep his pet dog stuffed in their home and another man who wanted to install a stripper pole in their bedroom for his wife to use.

The stripper pole guy tried to play off his request as an exercise tool for his wife, and he was eager for his wife to show off for him. She was not thrilled, to put it mildly, and a large part of the humor was derived from the clips of the wives expressing their outrage at the ridiculousness of their husbands’ wishes.

This was underscored whenever Natalie Morales, the NBC "Today Show" anchor, would state statistics at the host’s disposal, like on the number of Americans who stuff their pets every year (1,000, surprisingly low). She would also tack on information about the couple and their particular issue not shown in the clip; the dog in question, for example, was known for being a menace, chewing up furniture, and even peeing on guests.

Of course, even though Morales was there to lend some credibility to the show and to put the situation in context, if not bolster a participant’s argument, her neutrality was quickly swept away by a raft of jokes from the panel and the host. Morales is largely superfluous, as her role can be absorbed by the host or even included elsewhere in the show. Host Tom Papa is not funny, repeating the same standard jokes, the kind of canned lines that anyone with a corny manner can pull off.

Despite all this, the show was quite funny. The premise is simple and easily modified, and it’s clear that the show is well made, that a lot of thought went into it. The opening is a shortened version of how the idea came to pass: A fight between creator Jerry Seinfeld and his wife in front of a friend led him to ask said friend to be the referee. The characters are cartoons, and a baseball theme quickly takes over. Cute. Then we open to the introductions. It appears to be an old-fashioned game show, as the celebrities smile on and joke.

A couple is then introduced, and a series of both partners explain their problem, sometimes in one-on-one sessions with the camera, sometimes in voiceover. There is always a confrontation, and this is the funny part. The clips are always well-edited, and the couples are chosen because they are funny. They have great faces, they have great lines, and in both these cases, it was absolutely obvious that the wives would win.

Each judge weighs in, usually with a joke, and they banter some more. The host joins in, then flips to Morales, then renders judgment. Preview of next couple, commercial, and the process repeats. But there’s still a few minutes left! Why not go to a recap? The sports metaphor reappears, as Marv Albert is announced, and then he appears next to fancy generic sports lettering where he says the typical line about the sponsor, followed by a joke. Then the winning highlights, one from each clip, are played back. But we’ve seen this before, more than once; they are milking the maximum funny potential. It works in this instance, as the expression and the line chosen are meant to be sealed into memory, and everyone laughs again. But it’s filler, nothing more, completely unnecessary. The commercial highlighting the season’s guest stars is much more appealing.

Although this is very much billed as “Jerry Seinfeld’s show”, he doesn’t appear in subsequent episodes, but the mix of NBC-approved stars does look quite fun, and the episode alone is often much funnier and much more amusing than a random episode of any of NBC’s comedies. The disagreements are silly; we don’t think for a minute that either of these unions are troubled, and both couples featured in this episode have been married for a number of years (they also appeared childless). The show actively promotes marriage, as the show opens and closes with a retort effectively saying that these relationships are worth fighting for and that people should stick them out (preferably with a marriage ref on hand).

The wholesomeness works, as does the celebrity panel. Both couples receive a prize at the end, but that’s not really the point; nor does it matter who the refs rule for, as these couples can do whatever they want. But it’s just fun to peek into someone’s else life, and the comments are quite funny. It’s very clear that the show was engineered well, with a broad base, and the issues mined are both current and evergreen. The men try to come across as being respectful to their wives and enlightened in these sorts of things, as even panelist Alec Baldwin jokes, but they are still every much the doofus next door.

"The Marriage Ref" could use a few tweaks, like nixing Morales and possibly the recap at the end, but it will always remain lighthearted, wholesome, and thoroughly middle-American. Congratulations, NBC, looks like you’ve found yourself your next hit.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Twentysomethings Doing Stuff With Their Lives

Google's first-ever Superbowl ad was written by a 24 year-old, Tristan Smith. To make this even more incredible, the woman heard whispering in French and giggling is 25 year-old Michelle Vargas--a classmate of mine in college. We graduated the same year. We were in the same scriptwriting class sophomore year. Michelle is part of the GraceNMichelle comedy team; Grace's face is all over MyDamnChannel. They are part of this awesome online improv/comedy scene, and I bet we'll be seeing them on Saturday Night Live soon. I hope to make it out to one of their live shows; I saw some of their improv work senior year with their just-created troupe, and they were pretty entertaining.

Now I just need to move to a city and lead a supercool bloggy fun life...working hard and getting shit done.

Monday, February 8, 2010


My Grammy notes, a week later:

The Grammys weren’t too bad this year, if you don’t mind Taylor Swift. The night scored tops in the ratings, and that was due to the volume of performances. This is fine, but it was really strange to have so few awards televised, especially in hearing all the references to pre-televised wins.

  • In retrospect, had to know something was up when Song of the Year was awarded first, not something like “Female Pop Vocal of the Year”.
  • More awards. It’s an awards show, please remember that.
  • 3D was the worst idea ever, and even Rihanna and Beyoncé looked stupid dancing in their glasses.
  • Michael Jackson’s poor children.
  • The bleeping—or rather, the protracted silence of the censors—just made everyone think that something was wrong with the TV.
  • Timing. Make sure those likely to win an award aren’t held up by costume changes or preparations for performance, and can actually accept the award.
  • They need to stop dressing Taylor Swift in white. It’s ruining her image by overemphasizing it.
  • While most of the chatter circulated on Taylor Swift failing to reach the high notes in “Rihannon”, it was odd not to note how strange it was to see Stevie Nicks singing “You Belong With Me”, because the song is so juvenile. It also proves that the song will not age well once T. Swift grows out of this demographic. I really like the arrangement on “You Belong With Me”, though.
  • Sasha Fierce was very much out in full force. Surprisingly, Beyoncé did a medly of “If I Were a Boy” and the thematically fitting “You Oughta Know”, which worked perfectly with the tough soldier shtick she was working. The motif was very Rihanna, and reminded me very much of a recent podcast from the Slate Culture Gabfest discussing the decade in music. Beyoncé and Rihanna have both led the way in projecting female-driven and pop music into symbols of strength. They are fighters, kicking ass and taking names in their spike heels.
I’ve criticized Beyoncé before for being such a man-hater in her songs, and this combination only furthered my bafflement. Why is Beyoncé so angry? This is a question I’d wish 60 Minutes addressed in their pre-Grammy interview, instead of the stupid and softball questions about her relationship with her rapper-mogul husband and her history—all very well-known to her fans. Even for a general audience the interview was a letdown. Yes, Beyoncé likes to speak for the ladies, and she’s become phenomenally successful doing so, but in context, her anger is unjustified and contrary to the rest of her mild, measured persona. Maybe it’s just that performing righteously angry material like “You Oughta Know” is great fun and a tension release, and that Sasha Fierce is very much her alter ego; she’s speaking out for all the wrongs she’s seen in others. Sure, not performing smashes like “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” and “Halo” were puzzling, but “If I Were a Boy” showed off her vocal skills more, and she probably has a soft spot for that song. When it was released, she gave lots of interviews focused on the song and video, proudly showing it off, downplaying “Single Ladies”, which was released at the same time.

And of course, Lady Gaga and Elton John, which just needs to be seen again (sorry, no embed capabilities).

P.S. New York Magazine’s The Cut blog has a great roundup of Lady G’s costumes, seams and all.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

"It's All About Money"

Meant to post this last week when I first saw it (around 3:15):

Letterman hit the nail on the head. NBC's first mistake was five years ago, in pushing Leno out to ensure Conan would stay. Since Jay did not want to retire, NBC did not want to lose their late night powerhouse, and so finagled a way to keep him. But you can't have both.

As Tom Shales put it:

The feeble-brained executives should have heeded the "I don't care" rule propounded by the great CBS News President Bill Leonard when he had to decide whether Dan Rather or Roger Mudd would succeed Walter Cronkite in the anchor chair of "The CBS Evening News," another vaunted secular pulpit. Leonard had to deal with the reality that whichever one didn't get the job would go to a competing network.

Leonard thought and considered and decided: He didn't care if Roger Mudd went to another network because the damage to CBS ratings would likely be minimal, at least in comparison with the damage that the more glamorous and telegenic Rather could do. So Rather, you might recall, got the job.

As Ingrid Michaelson sings on a song I love (I can't believe I'm using it in this context), "The only way to really know / is to really let it go."


I am very impressed:

Pretty amazing. Not just the makeup and her technical and creative expertise, but with the camera and editing skills, how close they were filming her eyes. I also love how thorough she is.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Why Fox Affiliates May Not Pick Up Conan

So Conan's free to appear on another network. Yay! NBC's not a total douche.

I wondered before why NBC affiliates would rather show reruns than the Jay Leno Show, and the same premise holds for Fox: why wouldn't the affiliates run Conan's show? How could they possibly lose when you compare it to what they air now--reruns of The Simpsons and Seinfeld, a show that completed its run over a decade ago?

This Broadcasting & Cable piece breaks it down:

For the Fox owned and affiliated stations, picking up O'Brien would appear to cause far more pain than gain. The performance of the stations in the Top 10 markets at 11:30 p.m. is largely equivalent to NBC's Tonight Show ratings in the same hour. But the stations keep far more ad inventory in that hour now than they would if they were forced to give it up to Fox. Every half-hour syndicated show offers stations as much as six minutes of advertising inventory to sell, while a half-hour of network inventory typically offers only about a minute.

Sources say Fox brass has asked the Fox-owned stations to run the numbers, and stations have responded that they expect they would lose millions if the local outlets had to give a late-night hour back to the network. The Fox affiliates fall somewhere between lukewarm and intrigued about the notion of O'Brien shifting to their late night air, perhaps at 11:30. Some wonder why he should expect to do better on Fox after posting lagging ratings during his Tonight Show run, while others say he's a rare bankable talent that may be a free agent.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Taste Isn't Everything

The problem with discussing Jay and Conan's shows, as well as the rest of the late night debacle, is that invariably the author inserts his taste, which of course comes across as fact--that obviously Conan is so much funnier than Jay, that Jay is flat-out dry and unfunny. As much as we all do this to some degree, it's particularly irksome in this case, because both men--as well as the rest of the late night group (save for Carson Daly, but no one cares about him anyway)--are all established comics in one way or another. Sure, their humor, style and approach all differ, but that doesn't necessarily make one inherently unfunnier than the other. Jay had a loyal audience and was regularly beating Letterman by 20%--and ratings do indicate that he was popular. Someone was watching him; it may not be those who write the articles and Twitter obsessively, but he had plenty of lower-profile fans.

However, despite the partisanship, this Daily Beast article dissects why Conan's Tonight Show wasn't doing well, and he throws out the timeslot as hogwash:

The problems were fundamental. First is that here in the hangover of the 2008 election, we want political satire. O’Brien doesn’t do much political satire. If you think of the transcendent bits that surfaced on YouTube since Conan began Tonight last June, they’ve come from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, various cable chat shows, even ancient Saturday Night Live.

Conan’s only major contribution to political goofery is Smigel’s (inspired) ventriloquism of politicians like George W. Bush. It’s no wonder that O’Brien’s Late Night ratings plummeted by nearly 700,000 viewers (more than 25 percent) back in 2008, when the nation glued its eyes to the campaign. It should have been an omen: His Tonight Show felt off-topic before it started.

That might not have been so deadly if the Tonight throne hadn’t distorted what made O’Brien funny. The problem is not the old saw that O’Brien’s “brand of comedy” doesn’t play at 11:35 p.m. Carson and Letterman had plenty of inspired wackiness, and Grandma and Grandpa liked them just fine. The problem is that O’Brien is really at his best as a straight man—the guy doing the horrified reaction shot when the masturbating bear runs out on stage. He’s a ringmaster rather than an emotional center of gravity.

This flows from O’Brien’s Harvard Lampoon sensibility, a kind of comedy that is impish and intellectual rather than crusading and heartfelt. (You can never imagine Conan snarling like Jon Stewart.) There’s nothing wrong with this, and it could work within the right show. But when O’Brien sat down at Johnny’s desk, the gravitas seemed to throw off his balance.

He goes on to say that the Tonight Show hadn't figured itself out yet. Well, duh. That's not a huge sin for a show that's only been on a few months, and talk shows--which tend to have hundreds of episodes over a multi-year run--should have even more leeway than other types of programs. They're done on the fly, working simultaneously on several days' worth of episodes. Anyone who's ever watched the same host multiple days in a row knows that they repeat jokes; that is, they exhaust the same stories, news items, and themes day after day. This week every host has been riffing on the Jay/Conan/NBC mess; it hasn't gotten old yet, but the jokes about Harry Reid have. It's the nature of the game, not meant to be watched night after night, but to flip casually among many. As such, some nights are bad; it depends on the jokes, the news, the guests, and if you stick around, you do get glimpses of the style. But each man and his respective staffs put on a show, and the effort is seen. Denigrating either performer for comedic chops is unfair to the work they do.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

On Jay and Conan, and This Awful Situation

The brilliant Mark Harris predicted the Leno mess months ago:

But these days, with its lineup zigzagging from football to low-end cheapo reality like The Biggest Loser to botched onetime hits like Heroes to media pets like 30 Rock, NBC’s brand is scattershot. The face of the network, by virtue of sheer omnipresence, is Jay Leno, who, at 59, is not any network’s demographic ideal. He may not be killing NBC, as TV Guide recently speculated, but it’s beginning to feel like he’s participating in an assisted suicide. One thing’s already clear: Remaking an entire prime-time lineup in his familiarly peevish image was a Hail Mary pass, not a long-term business strategy. And one suspects the network knows it. With Jeff Gaspin already working hard to repair NBC’s relationship with the creative community by signing deals with high-profile producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and J. J. Abrams, it’s hard to imagine that he and Zucker are not beginning, very quietly, to consider a Plan B. That could involve paying off Leno and canceling his show, cutting it back to three or four nights a week to give the grid a little more flexibility, or even returning Leno, “by popular demand,” to the Tonight Show. Start sweating, Conan; Leno recently told a trade reporter he’d take that deal if he were asked to—a seemingly offhand comment that sounds a lot like the beginning of a gigantic face-saving maneuver.
TMZ broke the news Thursday that NBC was considering a shakeup in their primetime and late night schedule, an earthquake that only rose as the days continued. It was another powerful coup for TMZ, the first time sticking its tentacles into business matters. Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien, both middle-aged white men not usually the sort of target the gossip site goes after, were now the number one story.

It’s a real shame that it all had to end this way. The “failed experiment” of The Jay Leno Show was pilloried online, absolutely brutalized from the moment it was announced. Sure, it sucked for the creative community, but it was an interesting, bold move, and I supported Jay, Conan, and NBC. NBC said multiple times that they would honor the two-year commitment, wanting to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, but it was the affiliates—some, like Boston, which was against it from the start—who revolted.

Although NBC liked The Jay Leno Show, they felt they had no choice but to pull the plug, that a reduced load—airing two or three times a week—was not enough. Obviously, they wanted to hang on to Jay and Conan, to everyone, so they came up with their half-hour deal. It was a panacea, the best way they could retain all their talent. It’s a mess, with not enough time for everyone, yet too many holes to fill.

What’s changed so much is the business climate; the shows weren’t given much time to settle in, to get comfortable, showing just how different television is today. The Jay Leno Show hadn’t even been on the air for six months before it was cancelled, and it was performing to expectations. Conan’s Tonight Show was doing ok, but it had only been on the air since June. Conan was up against Letterman, an institution in his own right, and still in the midst of an extortion scandal; Jay’s show was an experiment still in the testing stage. It’s well known that their predecessors had bumpy rides when they first began, all they needed was a little time, at least a year!

Sure, the audiences for each comedian were different—a lot of people who were used to Jay at 11:30 may not have appreciated Conan’s humor, since they rarely saw him when he was on after midnight, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t get used to a new face or a new slot. But even those who want to argue that online viewership should matter—Conan’s Tonight Show was the 13th most popular item on Hulu last year—it is an issue that is irrelevant for the affiliates, a group who rarely get the spotlight. Jay Leno’s show didn’t crack the Top 25. This isn’t surprising; while Jay beat Conan in total audience numbers, his biggest fans tended not to be the types of people who watch clips online: middle-aged parents, the loyalists, the people who’ve known Jay for years. Conan’s audience is naturally up later, college-aged and people who aren’t settled into decades-old habits, and will watch the same wacky stuff over and over again, flipping online for the clips they missed.

It’s hard to comment on Leno vs. Conan’s respective shows without getting into taste—and that’s another arena where no one ever wins. Both of them have made several shots at NBC’s expense, as well as riffing on the situation at hand. Alessandra Stanley has an astute analysis (though she does come down on Leno’s side; he is the more polished performer):
[Conan] is considered a younger, hipper comedian, but as it turns out, his “Tonight” show is not very different from Mr. Leno’s. On Thursday they both made the exact same joke about the freezing temperatures in China — so cold that little children can’t get to their factory jobs. (Mr. Leno told his version a bit better.)
(I've noticed repeat jokes among the late-night hosts, too; Jay always comes out on top.)

But truthfully, both men got screwed. While there are plenty of people who say Jay should retire (and should’ve retired years ago), should he really be forced out? His Tonight Show was regularly beating Letterman. Leno himself wants no hard feelings, and was always supportive of Conan. He just wants to do a show. And Conan has worked hard and is great at what he does; he shouldn’t be forced out (though that’s a dominant reading of the situation). Also, Conan upended his life for the Tonight Show; he is in charge of a whole crew of people and their families, and that they moved to accommodate the changes, too. It’s no small thing to a lot of people.

So while it’s not surprising that Conan made the decision he did:
People of Earth:

In the last few days, I've been getting a lot of sympathy calls, and I want to start by making it clear that no one should waste a second feeling sorry for me. For 17 years, I've been getting paid to do what I love most and, in a world with real problems, I've been absurdly lucky. That said, I've been suddenly put in a very public predicament and my bosses are demanding an immediate decision.

Six years ago, I signed a contract with NBC to take over The Tonight Show in June of 2009. Like a lot of us, I grew up watching Johnny Carson every night and the chance to one day sit in that chair has meant everything to me. I worked long and hard to get that opportunity, passed up far more lucrative offers, and since 2004 I have spent literally hundreds of hours thinking of ways to extend the franchise long into the future. It was my mistaken belief that, like my predecessor, I would have the benefit of some time and, just as important, some degree of ratings support from the prime-time schedule. Building a lasting audience at 11:30 is impossible without both.

But sadly, we were never given that chance. After only seven months, with my Tonight Show in its infancy, NBC has decided to react to their terrible difficulties in prime-time by making a change in their long-established late night schedule.

Last Thursday, NBC executives told me they intended to move the Tonight Show to 12:05 to accommodate the Jay Leno Show at 11:35. For 60 years the Tonight Show has aired immediately following the late local news. I sincerely believe that delaying the Tonight Show into the next day to accommodate another comedy program will seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting. The Tonight Show at 12:05 simply isn't the Tonight Show. Also, if I accept this move I will be knocking the Late Night show, which I inherited from David Letterman and passed on to Jimmy Fallon, out of its long-held time slot. That would hurt the other NBC franchise that I love, and it would be unfair to Jimmy.

So it has come to this: I cannot express in words how much I enjoy hosting this program and what an enormous personal disappointment it is for me to consider losing it. My staff and I have worked unbelievably hard and we are very proud of our contribution to the legacy of The Tonight Show. But I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is its destruction. Some people will make the argument that with DVRs and the Internet a time slot doesn't matter. But with the Tonight Show, I believe nothing could matter more.

There has been speculation about my going to another network but, to set the record straight, I currently have no other offer and honestly have no idea what happens next. My hope is that NBC and I can resolve this quickly so that my staff, crew, and I can do a show we can be proud of, for a company that values our work.

Have a great day and, for the record, I am truly sorry about my hair; it's always been that way.


It still leaves everyone else back to asking, now what? Is Jay Leno back to the Tonight Show? Will everything about his new show be completely forgotten? He had some good stuff in there (like the “Earn Your Plug” game). Whose studio will he use? How will Conan do on Fox, where he is most likely to land? Is the Tonight Show tarnished forever? Will Jay lose a lot of audience share or support? Will those rush-job dramas be ready by March? Will this season be another implosion all-around for television, like it was two years ago? Will the affiliates really be happy? For business buffs, how will this impact the Comcast deal? Is there nothing worth a wait?

Comcast’s pending takeover of NBC Universal is the dog sniffing around the hen. While Jeff Gaspin, Chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment, has said that the pending Comcast takeover has had no effect on the decision, some outlets believe otherwise, citing the PR nightmare that rogue affiliates would cause as further proof of what a stinking egg NBC is. Gaspin, for his part, said that he wanted to wait until September, he wanted to see the numbers for a full television year, but the affiliates threatening to revolt forced his hand.

According to Deadline Hollywood Daily, a third of the affiliates (NBC has over 200) had talked about preempting The Jay Leno Show. I’m not sure what they would put on instead (would reruns really have given them a better boost? Seriously?), because their local news drop-offs were so bad, and advertising rates were plummeting faster than stomachs on a roller coaster. Yes, it is a bad time in media, but that's no longer an acceptable excuse, and clearly neither was waiting. It’s one of the few times that affiliates get to bully their bosses around, and so many, rightfully, place the blame on them.

Over the summer, Leno made his rounds to the affiliates, trying to soothe them that everything would be alright, that losing Law and Order wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. And yet, somehow, despite it being on all the other stations, it was. NBC tried mightily—God knows everyone saw Jay Leno’s face everywhere the past several months, something Jay was quick to joke about—but somehow, it felt too little, too late.

Further reading: Ratings info included here; More on NBC's "Midlife Crisis"

Saturday, January 9, 2010


I can't not post this. One, it's just great news, and two, I absolutely love Emily Nussbaum's writing in this paragraph. Just love.

In other news, I'm downright giddy that Aaron Sorkin will be back with another TV show about a TV show. Not because I liked Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, mind you: I thought the series was fascinating and I watched every single episode, but I was also simply flabbergasted by the solipsistic lunacy of the thing, which amounted to the most grandiose, fancily produced, payback-laden public tantrum thrown in the history of the medium. But Sorkin is clearly fascinated by television itself, as well as social networking, as well as Aaron Sorkin, and these are all obsessions I share, so I look forward to whatever auteurist fantasia is coming our way — and devoutly wish I could walk very fast down the hall with him in pointy heels, debating the matter.