Category Archives: On Pop Culture

What’s on your DVR?

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 12, 2019)

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Years ago, in days of old (pre-internet or cable) when magic filled the air…around this time of year, we ancient folk used to look forward to TV Guide’s “New Fall Season” issue. Granted, one could say the very concept of TV “seasons” is now moot, with a growing wave of cable subscribers “cutting the cord” and saddling up to the digital streaming salad bar to power graze on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO Now, etc., etc.

But there remain some of us who still subscribe (literally) to the Old Ways. I don’t know, perhaps it’s that tactile sensation of brandishing a remote. Or maybe it’s the warm, special feeling I get when I see my monthly Xfinity “Triple Play” bill of $200+, which not only gives me access to the interwebs and 200 channels (out of which I only watch about 15 with any regularity), but provides me with a good ol’ reliable land line, which keeps me up-to-date on all the latest phone scams (“Hello! I’m calling from Microsoft.”).

(To which I usually reply, “Eh, what’s that, young feller? Let me go fetch my ear horn!”)

If you dig around, you can still find worthwhile teevee for your viewing pleasure. It does require effort, as you must be willing to hold your nose and sift through a load of offal (read: reality TV overkill) to unearth the odd gem. For anyone who cares, here are my current top 10 Must See TV shows (with a wee bit of off-platform cheating…mea culpa).

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At Home With Amy Sedaris (TRU-TV) – I don’t mean to judge, but if you don’t bust a gut watching At Home With Amy Sedaris there’s something seriously wrong with you. Actually, there’s something seriously wrong with Amy Sedaris…but that’s what I love about her. In this faux-lifestyle/homecraft/cooking show, she’s basically goofing on Martha Stewart-but in her own wonderfully twisted way. Sedaris plays multiple characters (all of them disturbing), assisted by a small and dexterous comedy ensemble. Seasons 1 and 2 are currently in V.O.D. for free if you have TRU in your cable package.

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The Deuce (HBO) – While it sometimes feels like The Wire Lite, even a lesser effort from the great David Simon (a writer and producer for the excellent 90s series Homicide: Life on the Street and creator/head writer of the aforementioned HBO series The Wire) beats most TV fare any given day.

Now in its 3rd (and final) season, The Deuce is a network narrative that centers on the “golden age of porn” in NYC from early 70s to the mid-80s. There are several central characters; including a street walker turned porno actress turned film director (Maggie Gyellenhall), a bartender and degenerate gambler who are twin brothers (both played Patti Duke-style by James Franco) and an NYPD patrolman (Lawrence Gilliard, Jr.). PT Anderson’s Boogie Nights meets Sidney Lumet’s Serpico and John Sayles’ City of Hope at the corner of 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue.

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Frankie Drake Mysteries (CBC & Ovation) – Now in its 3rd season, this refreshingly old-school detective drama from Canada follows the escapades of the eponymous Ms. Drake (Lauren Lee Smith), a WW I veteran who founds Toronto’s first female P.I. agency. Ably assisted by her partner Trudy (Chantel Riley), Toronto P.D. “morality officer” Mary (Rebecca Liddiard) and a city morgue pathologist named Flo (Sharron Matthews) who serves as a de facto forensic specialist for the team, Frankie tackles a new case every week with pluck and aplomb.

I like the way they viably work in historical figures now and then; Ernest Hemingway was a recurring character in Season 1 (I had to look it up…but turns out he was a reporter for the Toronto Star newspaper in the 1920s!). It’s lightweight, but a lot of fun (and archly feminist). I’ve been watching in on CBC, but I see Ovation will be running episodes from the first two seasons beginning October 14.

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GLOW (Netflix) – Set in the 1980s (lot of that going around lately, I guess those are the “olden times” for some of you kids), this engaging dramedy was co-created by Liz Flahive (a producer and writer for Nurse Jackie and Homeland) and Carly Mensch (a producer and writer for Nurse Jackie, Weeds, and Orange is the New Black).

The series is set in the world of women’s wrestling (which enjoyed a surge of popularity during that decade). Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin lead a fine ensemble cast as a pair of longtime friends and struggling actors named Ruth and Debbie, who channel their thespian skills into creating their wrestling characters “Zoya the Destroya” and “Liberty Belle” (respectively).

Marc Maron co-stars as a cynical grade-Z horror film director who now writes storylines for the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling’s ring characters, as well as “directing” rehearsals for each match. The writing and acting is superb, with a nice balance of drama and hilarity.

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Goliath (Amazon Prime) – I fought long and hard against joining The Collective (as I refer to the act of “becoming an Amazon Prime member”) but between Whole Foods cashiers chirpily inquiring “Are you a Prime member?” ad nauseum-and my pal Digby and her husband browbeating me into catching up on Seasons 1 and 2 of Goliath, they wore me down. I was immediately hooked.

Billy Bob Thornton is outstanding as the central character, a brilliant but down-and-out attorney who lives in a beachfront motel in Santa Monica (the premise and vibe recalls the 70s series Harry O).

I just binged Season 3, and it’s damn near the best thing I’ve seen this year, including films (yes…I just said that). Dark, deeply weird, and wildly original (think David Lynch directs Chinatown). Great casting, superb performances, and sharp writing. My favorite quote: “Sometimes you need waffles. Sometimes you need pancakes. It’s the same fuckin’ batter.”

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Mayans M.C. (FX) – If you miss The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, this Sons of Anarchy spin-off (currently in Season 2) should get your motor runnin’. The brainchild of Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter and punk-rock musician/filmmaker Elgin James, the series retains the noir-ish vibe and a few characters from its forebearer but ups the ante with a more ambitious and complex network narrative.

Like its predecessor it is an ensemble piece, but still features a compelling, conflicted central character; in this case “EZ” (J.D. Pardo), a “prospect” member of the Mayans motorcycle club. He is vouched for by his older brother (Clayton Cardenas), a full-fledged member. EZ is no saint, but essentially serves as the “conscience” in this violent, amoral universe. Top-notch writing and acting.

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Mr. Robot (USA) – I have faithfully watched every episode of this tough-to-categorize drama series (which launched its much-anticipated 4th and final season last week) about a disenfranchised computer hacker- and to be perfectly honest with you, I still don’t really understand what the fuck is happening half the time. Yet I can’t wait for the next episode. Go figure. Maybe I’ve just stumbled on the secret to its wild success…always keep ‘em guessing. I don’t know. I mean, what is reality, anyway? For that matter, who am I? Why am I asking you? Who are you? How do I know you even exist? [tap, tap] Hello…friend?

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MIXTAPE (AXS-TV) – The premise of this program is so simple yet brilliant that I’m surprised no one has thought of it before. Each episode features a rock star talking about the artists and songs that have had the most personal impact and creative influence on them throughout their life. As the show progresses, so does a cumulative playlist of all the songs mentioned. By the end…voila! A cool mixtape. In most cases, a surprisingly eclectic mixtape that reveals more about the artist than you’d expect. Nicely done.

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On Becoming a God in Central Florida (Showtime) This social satire is set in the early 90s. Kirsten Dunst stars as a Florida woman who lives in a one-horse burg near Orlando. She has a minimum-wage job at a water park, but dreams of getting rich quick via an Amway-type pyramid scheme. At least, that appears to be the elevator pitch as Episode 1 begins. To avoid spoilers, let’s say it soon switches gears, taking more unexpected turns with each episode. Very dark and very funny (right in my wheelhouse). Quirky characters abound; a bit reminiscent of Carl Hiaasen’s universe (if you have read any of his novels).

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Paul Shaffer Plus One (AXS-TV) – Hosted by the affable Canadian keyboardist, band leader and music arranger who came to fame from his work on SNL and as David Letterman’s house band leader, this breezy half-hour show features Shaffer sitting at the piano and going one-on-one with a single guest (mostly musicians). To put it politely, he has an idiosyncratic interviewing style, but asks the right questions…especially in context of what matters most: the music!

Special guest post: A tribute to Robert Hunter

By John Wing

Note: John Wing is a Canadian comedian, writer and poet with whom I had the pleasure of working with several times during my stint in stand-up. He’s made a half-dozen appearances on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and is a perennial favorite at the Winnipeg Comedy Festival.  Today, Grateful Dead fans the world over are mourning the passing of poet and  lyricist Robert Hunter. John wrote a piece on his Facebook page that meshes a great road story with a touching tribute to the Dead’s late muse. With his permission, I am re-publishing John’s thoughts here.

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1983, winter, probably February or March. I was booked on a comedy night at the Tralfamadore in Buffalo NY. I was opening and I did all right. Nice room. I was getting $250, which was the most I had ever been paid up until that time.

The boss called me into the office after my show and said, “We have Robert Hunter playing here tomorrow night. Two shows. If we take care of another night in the hotel, could you stay and open for him? We’ll pay you $100.” I must have been feeling my oats, because I said, “Sure, but why am I worth $250 tonight for one show and only $100 tomorrow for two shows?” He thought about it and then offered me $250 to open for Robert, and I agreed.

I had a typical three-years-in act at the time. About 30 minutes, 40 if it was going GREAT, lots of crap, drug jokes, some song parodies and some personal stuff. Some of it was funny, but my real voice was a couple of months away. That spring I would write the opening and closing bits that would make me a headliner in the next two years. 

So I went back the next night and met a very nice man, Robert Hunter, lyricist of the Grateful Dead. He shared his dressing room with me and we chatted and I did a pretty good first show for 300 screaming deadheads. The drug jokes worked very well. Robert had a great show and after, we had a meal in the dressing room and he lit a powerful joint and offered me some. I was 24 years old and what did I have to fear? I got high with Robert Hunter.  

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I went out for the second show completely stoned and noticed within 30 seconds that the crowd hadn’t been turned. It was the same 300 people, and they knew every joke, and I didn’t have a spare 30 minutes. After two or three minutes of death with hecklers, I put the guitar on and took requests. What the fuck. 

Did a couple of songs and during the second or third one I thought “I gotta do something uptempo to get them going.” So I finished the song and went blazing into Good Lovin’ by the Rascals. And they went craaaazzzy! They sang along, louder then hell. My God, it tingles even now, 36 years later. I did a couple more songs and finished.

They CALLED ME BACK for an encore, the first one I ever got. I did “Sweet Baby James” and finished. Backstage, getting ready to go on, Robert asked, “How did you know to do Good Lovin’?” I said I didn’t know. I just wanted to get them going. “The Dead do it every show,” he said.

What a nice man and a perfect memory. Rest in peace, Robert Hunter. 1941-2019

Start out running but I’ll take my time
Friend of the devil is a friend of mine
If I get home before daylight
I just might get some sleep tonight.

Man of 1,000 dances: R.I.P. Hal Blaine

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 16, 2019)

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I nearly had a Curb Your Enthusiasm moment at the 2008 Seattle International Film Festival. I attended a screening of The Wrecking Crew, a music documentary profiling a group of legendary studio session players. This guy sitting right next to me began talking back to the screen halfway through. The house was packed, so I couldn’t move to another seat. I almost shushed him but thought better of it (you never know how someone is going to react these days). Lights came up, and my chatty neighbor turned out to be… Wrecking Crew drummer Hal Blaine, who was there to do a Q & A after the screening.

I only share that memory now because Hal Blaine passed away this week at the age of 90.

In a scene from a 1995 documentary about Brian Wilson called I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times, his daughter Carnie talks about a period of her childhood where she recalls being startled awake every single morning by the iconic “bum-ba-bum-BOOM, bum-ba-bum-BOOM…” drum intro to The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” blasting from her dad’s stereo system. Apparently, Brian was obsessed at the time with trying to suss how producer Phil Spector was able to achieve that distinctive “wall of sound” on his records.

Carnie may or may not have been aware that technically, the man disturbing her rest was Hal Blaine. In a 2015 Guardian article, Blaine confessed that his drum intro was a fluke:

I was like a racehorse straining at the gate. But [Phil Spector] wouldn’t let me play until we started recording, because he wanted it to be fresh. That famous drum intro was an accident. I was supposed to play the snare on the second beat as well as the fourth, but I dropped a stick. Being the faker I was in those days, I left the mistake in and it became: “Bum-ba-bum-BOOM!” And soon everyone wanted that beat. If you listen to me in Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night”, I’m playing the “Be My Baby” beat, just very softly.

Yes, Blaine also played with Sinatra. His services were also requested for the Pet Sounds sessions by the Phil Spector-obsessed Wilson. In fact, from the late 50s through the mid-70s, Blaine did sessions with Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, The Righteous Brothers, Henry Mancini, Ike & Tina Turner, The Monkees, The Association, Nancy Sinatra, The Fifth Dimension, The Byrds, Sonny & Cher, Petula Clark, Mamas and the Papas, The Grass Roots, and countless others. Not to mention myriad TV themes and movie soundtracks.

Blaine was a member of the “Wrecking Crew”, a moniker given to an aggregation of crack L.A. session players who in essence created the “sound” that defined classic Top 40 pop from the late 50s through the 70s. With several notable exceptions (Glen Campbell, Leon Russell and Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack) their names remain obscure to the general public, even if the music they helped forge is forever burned into our collective neurons.

Blaine may have been the most recorded drummer in pop music history. Remember that one time at band camp, when I almost told him to shut up? I remember him telling the audience that he was then in the midst of compiling his discography; he said at that time he’d been able to annotate “only” about 5,000 sessions (some estimates top the 10,000 mark!).

That’s quite a legacy. Condensing a “top 10” list from such a wondrous catalog is likely a fool’s errand-but that hasn’t stopped me in the past. So here you go, in alphabetical order:

“Any World (That I’m Welcome To)” (Steely Dan) – One of the better songs on Steely Dan’s 1975 album Katy Lied, “Any World” is essentially a musical daydream featuring compelling chord changes and wistful lyrics about quiet resignation and wishful thinking (“If I had my way, I would move to another lifetime/Quit my job, ride the train through the misty nighttime…”) You know – a typical excursion into Donald Fagen and Walter Becker’s willfully enigmatic and ever-droll universe (“Any world that I’m welcome to/Is better than the one I come from.”). The famously picky duo only used Blaine for this cut.

“Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” (The Fifth Dimension) – James Rado, Gerome Ragni and Galt MacDermot’s groundbreaking 1967 musical Hair was such a pop culture phenomenon at the time that it yielded huge hit singles for several artists who were not associated with any of its stage productions; namely Oliver (“Good Morning, Starshine”), Three Dog Night (“Easy to Be Hard”), and this epic two-song medley, which was covered by The Fifth Dimension. Bones Howe produced it, and The Wrecking Crew provided primary backing. The complex instrumental arrangement is by Bill Holman. Released as a single in 1969, it was not only a chart-topper, but picked up two Grammys.

“A Taste of Honey” (Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass) – Man, I heard this song a lot when I was a kid. Whipped Cream and Other Delights was a staple of my parents’ LP collection; I recall having a particular…fascination for the album cover (I’m pretty sure I stared a hole in it). Written by Bobby Scott and Ric Marlow in 1960, the song was covered by quite a few artists (including The Beatles), but Herb Alpert’s #1 1965 instrumental version is pretty definitive. Blaine holds it down tight with that bass drum!

“Be My Baby” (The Ronettes) – Just like Ronnie say. Produced (bigly) by Phil Spector, with Blaine’s unmissable “mistake” kicking things off quite nicely, thank you very much.

“Cecilia” (Simon & Garfunkel) – Featured on the duo’s outstanding 1970 swan song album Bridge Over Troubled Water, this jaunty Caribbean-flavored number was one of several cuts that hinted at Paul Simon’s burgeoning interest and future forays into world music. The song is very percussion-oriented, which makes it a good showcase for Blaine. Simon adds additional percussion on xylophone (although the overall effect gives the number a steel drum vibe very reminiscent of Bobby Bloom’s 1970 hit “Montego Bay”).

“Drummer Man” (Nancy Sinatra) – Blaine famously played on Nancy’s biggest hit “These Boots Were Made for Walkin” (1966), but this lesser-known cut from her 1999 album How Does it Feel? gives Blaine lots of room to stretch and really strut his stuff.

“Galveston” (Glen Campbell) – In a touching memoriam to Glen Campbell that Blaine posted on his Facebook page in 2017, he wrote “Everything that Glen recorded, with the Crew or with other musicians, were all hits. As for personal favorites, Glen always had a special place in his heart for the great song “Galveston”, and I guess we all did.” I will happily second that emotion. Blaine and the Crew are all in fine form on this beautifully crafted Jimmy Webb composition, which says all it needs to say in 2:41. Pop perfection.

“Kicks” (Paul Revere & the Raiders) – This single (which peaked at #4 on the Billboard charts in 1966) was produced by Terry Melcher and written by the Brill Building hit-making team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (“You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”, “On Broadway”, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”). Solid drumming from Blaine, a memorable guitar riff, and a great growly (almost punky) lead vocal from Mark Lindsay.

“That’s Life” (Frank Sinatra) – When you’ve loved and lost like Frank…well, you know how the song goes: “Ridin’ high in April/Shot down in May…” Released in 1966 as the B-side to “The September of My Years” the song was written by Dean Kay and Kelly Gordon and produced by Jimmy Bowen (it went to #1 on the Easy Listening chart). Blaine, Glen Campbell and several other Wrecking Crew “regulars” are featured on the cut. The bluesy Hammond organ flourishes were played by Michael Melvoin. “My, my!”

“Wouldn’t It Be Nice” (The Beach Boys) – A great opener for a damn near perfect song cycle (if it weren’t for that loopy throwaway cut “Sloop John B” that has always ruined the otherwise consistently transporting mood of Pet Sounds for me…mumble grumble). Co-written by Brian Wilson, Tony Asher, and Mike Love, it features an expansive production by Wilson and a transcendent vocal arrangement with lovely harmonies. The Wrecking Crew are in full force on this cut, with Blaine holding it steady.

 

Special guest post: A very, very, very fine house

By Dwight Slade

Note: Dwight Slade is a Portland-based comic with whom I had the pleasure of working with several times during my stint in stand-up. Much has been written about comedians on the road; many such tales are entertaining,  yet tend to be (shall we say) less than “family-friendly”.  Dwight shared an uplifting “road story” on his Facebook page this week that recounts two journeys; a bittersweet memoir about the miles already traveled, and a hopeful peek at what lies around the next bend.  With his permission, I am re-publishing Dwight’s thoughts here. – Dennis Hartley

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In 1983, Bill Hicks and I were sharing a studio apartment in Burbank, CA. The 80’s comedy boom was beginning, and Bill decided to head back to Houston. I was struggling with the LA open mike scene. Sometimes waiting hours to perform 3 minutes at the Westwood Comedy Store or at a brand new, tiny club on Sunset named The Laugh Factory.

My friend Bill Weber called me and said I should come to Portland for the summer. He was going to house sit for 6 weeks. I could stay with him. What a great opportunity…I could do open mikes in Portland while trashing the house of a complete stranger.

When I got to Portland I found a charming, rainy city with a ton of open mikes. I remember taking the TriMet bus over the brown, rusty Hawthorne bridge that crosses the Willamette river and emerges into downtown. I thought to myself, “I can handle this city. Why should I go back to LA and be frustrated and unknown, when I can be frustrated and unknown in Portland?”

I plunged into the open mike scene and found a loving and creative group who had an absolutely unique combination of unbridled support and gritty competition. Dave Anderson, Mike “Boats” Johnson, JP Linde, Dan Deprez, Dawn Greene, Susan Rice, Art Krug and Robert Jenkins. We all found a link to what our lives would soon be about.

Before long we had all graduated to local headliners fueled by a crazy group of fans who loved this brand-new irreverent form of stand up. This was before Evening at the Improv and chain comedy clubs.

I made Portland my home, but spent most of the time on the road.
Cutting my teeth as a middle act all over the US.  Mostly in Nebraska, however. All while raising two wonderful children.

This was so long ago that my first CD, “Weird State,” was printed on cassette.

In 1998, Dave Anderson and I found an opportunity to do talk radio in Portland. I stopped doing stand-up as Dave and I tried to make our mark in talk radio. This was in 2000. Which featured the most contentious election in history. In an awesome stroke of irony, the day the Supreme Court gave the election to Bush, KXL decided to let us go.

I was suddenly without a job and hadn’t performed stand up in a year. I had no choice than to throw myself back into stand up. Maybe that Renton gig wasn’t so bad.

Within a year I had experienced my most creative period. Winding up with a development deal with the company who created Gilmore Girls. I did road work, I traveled to Edinburgh to do the Fringe Festival, went to Afghanistan to entertain troops (US Troops).

All from a small house in NE Portland. This was my home. Where I recharged and healed through auditions, marriages, the kid’s saxophone and flute lessons.

I thought I would live here forever.

I’ve discovered however that I need to rattle my cage every now and then. And there is no better rattling than to move to Boise, Idaho.
Since Whitney accepted her new job with the Idaho Food Bank and we decided to move, I have seen how much the city of Portland has given me. How much it has changed me. My kids have grown into wonderful human beings that know not to laugh at fart jokes in movies; a wonderful marriage and a 17-year-old cat.

That’s why we packed 18 years of accumulated crap that would challenge the worst of hoarders and have hustled over the mountains to Boise, Idaho.

This has entailed a lot of tearing of roots. This was the house where I dealt with my Dad and Mom’s illness; my two brothers’ deaths, Dave, Mike and Bill Hicks.

All from this pretty blue house in NE Portland.

I’m not going far. But wanted everyone to know that I will carry you, and Portland, with me no matter where life’s adventures takes me.

A special guest post: Looking for comedy in the Muslim world

By Brad Upton

Note: Brad Upton is a Seattle-based comedian with whom I had the pleasure of working with during my stint in stand-up. He has just wrapped up a tour in Pakistan with several other comics, and has been posting on Facebook about his experience.  As we all know, there’s no crying in baseball…or comedy. Nonetheless, Brad wrote a post today that I found incredibly moving and inspiring; and in light of all the bellicose nationalist rhetoric coming from the top these days, it is a much-needed reminder that people are people, wherever you go. With his permission, I am re-publishing Brad’s thoughts here. – Dennis Hartley

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Please allow me to ramble.

Karachi, Pakistan

Last Wednesday night I went back in time and was able to relive what it was like when I started doing stand up. That feeling of excitement, anticipation, feeling the collective energy of the room, of the possibility….of the future. It felt like my beginning in 1984.

After a day of promotion, meals and being ferried throughout Karachi in traffic that can’t adequately be described other than a mass of scooters, motorcycles, 3-wheeled motorized rickshaws, buses, donkey carts, horseback and cars….none of them following any observable rules, we pulled up in front of a 5-story building on a side street. Everywhere we pull up in Karachi: a restaurant, studio, or hotel, a man or men, stand up and emerge from the shadows carrying highly modified automatic weapons. Blue slacks and blue polo shirts, this is security.

There are offices on the first floor. Five of us enter a hot, humid elevator that should probably only hold three. We emerge on the top floor. It certainly isn’t a bar, or a restaurant, or banquet room, or any kind of theater. It is an empty office space and this is where you find Karachi’s two-year-old, open mic comedy scene. There is a logo on the wall behind the comics proudly calling this place the Thot Spot. As we emerge from the elevator we can hear laughter as we slip quietly into the back of the room. The audience sits in rows of folding chairs. The room holds about 70 and is packed.

The room is electric with energy, each comic is getting big laughs. What takes me back in time is how the comics and audience are enthralled with what is happening. This vibe doesn’t exist at an open mic in the US; stand up is part of our culture and some of the comics have been going up for years.

This is different. This is new. This is fun. We’ve never done this. We’ve never had this. People are standing in front of their peers and talking about life in Karachi, their awkwardness, sex, politics, traffic, social media, dating, school, family, etc. Young Muslim men and women speaking their minds in ways that make their peers laugh.

Wait, I haven’t mentioned something VERY important. I THINK these are the topics. This entire show is being performed in Urdu. Many Pakistanis are bilingual but it seems Urdu is usually the first option.

I. Am. Mesmerized.

To hear stand up performed in a language I don’t understand is fascinating. I love the rhythm of the words and can quickly recognize an approaching punchline just by the pacing and nuances. I can hear the beats. I find myself laughing at jokes I don’t understand, verifying that laughter is contagious.

The audience and comics are aware that this night is different. The international professionals that have just arrived from Great Britain and the US will go up at the end and do 7-10 minutes each.

Our host, our organizer, our MC, Umar Rana, takes over the hosting duties at the conclusion of the Urdu sets and quickly converts the audience over to English. Keep in mind that myself, Dwight Slade and Shazia Mirza aren’t quite sure what we’re in for. We are almost sick with jet lag. We are confident, veteran professionals….but this is Pakistan. Will they like us? Have I chosen the right material? Will this joke make sense?

Suddenly I have the open mic feeling that I haven’t felt in over 30 years. I go first, followed by Dwight and Shazia. For all three of us, everything works. Every joke, every expression, every nuance. All three of us destroy and delight in the experience. The show wraps up and we stand around laughing and smiling and talking with our Pakistani cohorts. I suddenly have new friends!

This audience has given these pros a taste of what the weekend is going to be like. It is humbling. I witness what has happened at this open mic in Karachi and am proud of my profession. I got more out of this evening than they did. These people want to laugh and be entertained. These kids are Pakistan’s future. Inshallah.

 

Accept the obvious: R.I.P. Dick Gregory

By Dennis Hartley

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“The most difficult thing to get people to do is to accept the obvious.”

-Dick Gregory

Man, did Dick Gregory pick a bad weekend to go. With the passing of Jerry Lewis and eclipse mania building to a fever pitch, his death in Washington D.C. this past Saturday earned him but a few perfunctory thirty second obits on network and cable newscasts.

Truth be told, Gregory was not so much a “comedian” who went out of his way to make you laugh as he was a righteous, erudite truth teller, who also happened to be very funny.  He was a trickster of a sort;  he would lower your guard with a perfect zinger, then seconds later he would raise your consciousness with a sharp social insight.

“Last time I was down South I walked into this restaurant, and this white waitress came up to me and said, ‘We don’t serve colored people here.’  I said: ‘that’s all right, I don’t eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.’ “

-Dick Gregory

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When it came to his political activism, he didn’t just talk the talk:

[From The Los Angeles Times]

An invitation from civil rights leader Medgar Evers to speak at voter registration rallies in Jackson, Miss., in 1962 launched Gregory into what he called “the civil rights fight.”

He was frequently arrested for his activities in the ’60s, and once spent five days in jail in Birmingham, Ala. after joining demonstrators in 1963 at the request of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Gregory, who was shot in the leg while trying to help defuse the Watts riots in 1965, made a failed run for mayor of Chicago as a write-in candidate in 1967. A year later, he ran for president as a write-in candidate for the Freedom and Peace Party, a splinter group of the Peace and Freedom Party. Hunter S. Thompson was one of his most vocal supporters.

In the late ’60s, he began going on 40-day fasts to protest the Vietnam War.

In 1980, impatient with President Carter’s handling of the Iranian hostage crisis, he flew to Iran and began a fast, had a “ceremonial visit” with revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and met with the revolutionary students inside the embassy. After four and a half months in Iran, his weight down to 106 pounds, he returned home.

Not exactly your everday “ha-ha funny” type of clown, was he?

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His activism never stopped. From today’s Democracy Now tribute (I’d recommend watching the entire tribute-its quite moving)…

Gregory became one of the most popular comedians in the country, paving the way for generations of African-American comedians. On Sunday Chris Rock wrote on Instagram, “We lost a king. They’ll never be another. Read his books. Look him up you won’t be disappointed. Unfortunately the America that produced Dick Gregory still exists.” Dick Gregory was the first African-American comedian to sit on the couch of The Tonight Show, then hosted by Jack Parr. As his popularity grew, so did his activism.

[…]

More recently, his face appeared in newspapers across the country for his community action to — approach to investigate allegations behind the CIA’s connection with drugs in the African American community. He camped out in dealer-ridden public parks and rallied community leaders to shut down head shops. He protested at CIA headquarters and was arrested. Throughout his life, Dick Gregory has been a target of FBI and police surveillance. And he was virtually banned from the entertainment arena for his political activism.

The last sentence above  explains in part (sadly) why, despite his long career, you’ll find virtually no Dick Gregory performance clips on YouTube. That’s because he has essentially been blacklisted for years; there are very few archived TV or club appearances that exist.

Here’s a little taste of his early standup days:

Here’s a rare latter-day television appearance, on Arsenio in 2014:

There’s a lot of truth-telling going on in that interview. Interesting to note that Arsenio Hall’s “revival” run (that started in 2013)  was cancelled soon after (file under “Things That Make You Go: ‘Hmm.'”)

“To me, seeing a great comedian is a bit like watching a musician or a poet.”

-Dick Gregory

Accept the obvious:  America’s conscience has lost its Poet Laureate. R.I.P.

The day the clowns cried: R.I.P. Jerry Lewis

By Dennis Hartley

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“Jerry Lewis is never just OK or adequate; he’s either very funny or he’s awful.”  – Jerry Lewis, commenting on his film oeuvre.

Yes, I used “Jerry Lewis” and “oeuvre” in the same sentence. “Ouevre” is a fancy French word that means “Hey, LAAY-DEE!”

I’m kidding. Mirriam-Webster defines  it as “…a substantial body of work constituting the life work of a writer, an artist, or a composer.”

Jerry Lewis, who died this morning in Las Vegas, certainly left behind a substantial body of work.  From 1949 to 2016, he acted in over 50 films; out of those he directed 23, and wrote 20 of them. And, as Lewis himself observed, some were very funny, others not so much.

Some of Lewis’ early, funnier movies include 1952’s The Stooge, 1955’s Artists and Models, 1959’s Don’t Give Up the Ship (those three co-starring his decade-long stage and screen comedy partner Dean Martin),  The Bellboy (1960), Cinderfella (1960), The Ladies Man (1961), The Nutty Professor (1963),  and The Disorderly Orderly (1964).

Martin Scorsese gave Lewis a second wind when he offered him a juicy part in his brilliant 1982 show biz satire The King of Comedy (highly recommended). It not only introduced Lewis to a new generation of fans, but allowed him to demonstrate that he had chops as a dramatic actor (when he wasn’t pulling faces, that is). Two more post-Scorsese Lewis performances worth a rental are Emir Kusturica’s 1993 off-the-wall sleeper Arizona Dream, and Peter Chelsom’s 1995 dramedy Funny Bones.

While he had continued writing, directing and starring in films through the early 70s, Lewis floundered at the box office as his particular brand of shtick went out of vogue in Hollywood. “Hollywood” is the key word here; as everyone and their grandmother knows, it was the undying admiration by the French that ultimately kept Lewis’ rep as a film maker afloat during his wilderness years (they gave him the Legion of Honor award in 1983).

Despite all the joking and ridicule spawned by France’s love affair with Jerry Lewis, they were on to something. He was, by definition, an auteur,  having written, directed and starred in so many films. A lot of people are not aware that he was also an innovator. He essentially invented the “video tap”, a signal-splitting device that attaches to a movie camera and allows the director to share the  camera operator’s view in real time, via a separate video monitor.

I am aware that Lewis’ self-appraisal as being either “very funny or awful” as an artist could apply on occasion to his off-stage life. He didn’t always think before he spoke. That noted, stepping back to look at the big picture, this was a human being who devoted well over 70 years of his long and productive life to making people laugh.

And that’s a good thing. Going up?

Diamonds in the idiot box: Top 20 TV themes

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 10, 2017)

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After screening (and reviewing) 25 films over the last several weeks for my SIFF coverage, I’m taking a breather from sticky floors and the smell of stale popcorn tonight to share my favorite TV show themes. It began as a “top 10” list, but I quickly gleaned that I had assigned myself a fool’s errand with that limitation. So I upped the ante to 15. Then it had to be 20 (damn my OCD). Even with that generous margin, I still had to rob Peter to pay Paul on a few choices, which almost guarantees dissension in the ranks. So if I have “overlooked” your favorite(s), feel free to share in the comments section (be nice).

The Adventures of Pete and Pete – Nickelodeon’s best-kept secret, and a guilty pleasure. Gentle anarchy in the Bill Forsyth vein. I discovered, watched, and continue to re-watch it, as an (alleged) adult. So sue me. Besides…you can’t resist the hooks in Polaris’ theme.

Cheers – “Norm!” Gary Portnoy performed (and co-wrote) this upbeat show opener.

Coronet Blue – When I was 11, I became obsessed with this noir-ish, single-season precursor to the Bourne films. This theme has been stuck in my head since, oh…1967?

Due South – Paul Haggis’ unique “fish out of water” crime dramedy about a Canadian Mountie assigned to work with the Chicago P.D. was one of my favorite shows of the 90s (confession: I own all 4 seasons on DVD). It also had a great theme song, by Jay Semko.

Hawaii Five-O – The Ventures were the original surf punks (and they’re from Tacoma!).

M*A*S*H – Johnny Mandel’s lovely chart (ported from Robert Altman’s 1970 film, sans Mike Altman’s lyrics) is quite melancholic for a sitcom-but it spoke to the show’s pathos.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show – This ever-hopeful tune plays a bit wistfully now that Ms. Moore has shuffled off, but hey-as long as we have syndication, we’ll always have Mary.

Mission Impossible – Argentine jazz man Lalo Schifrin hit the jackpot with this memorable theme (he composed some great movie soundtracks too, like Cool Hand Luke). Legendary “Wrecking Crew” bassist Carol Kaye really lays it down on this one!

The Monkees – Here’s the cosmic conundrum that keeps me up nights: Mike Nesmith was my favorite Monkee…yet the Monkees remain Mike Nesmith’s least favorite band.

The Office (BBC original series) – For my money, nobody tops future Atomic Rooster lead singer Chris Farlowe’s soulful 1967 take on this oft-covered Mike d’Abo composition, but this nice rendition by Big George obviously won Ricky Gervais’ lottery.

Peter Gunn – Henry Mancini was a genius, plain and simple. Wrote hooks in his sleep.

Portlandia – Somehow, stars Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein (along with series co-creator/director Johnathan Krisel) have mined 7 seasons of material by satirizing hipster culture. Like any sketch-comedy show, it’s hit-and-miss, but when it hits a bullseye, it’s really funny. It’s easy to fall in love with Washed Out’s atmospheric dream pop theme.

Rawhide – “Move ‘em on! Head ‘em up!” This performance explains why Mel Brooks enlisted Frankie Laine to sing the Blazing Saddles theme. I’m afraid this squeezed Bonanza off my list (I’m sure I will be verbally bull-whipped by some of you cowpokes).

Secret Agent Man – This Johnny Rivers classic opened U.S. airings of the U.K. series Danger Man (which had a pretty cool harpsichord-driven instrumental theme of its own).

The Sopranos – For 7 years, Sunday night was Family night in my house. Fuhgettaboutit.

Square Pegs – This short-lived 1982 comedy series (created by SNL writer Anne Beatts) was, in hindsight, a bellwether for the imminent John Hughes-ification of Hollywood. Initially a goofy cash-in on New Wave/Valley Girl couture, it has become a cult favorite.

The Twilight Zone – It’s the Twilight Zone “theme”, but it’s not so much conventional composition as it is avant-garde sound collage (ahead of its time, like the program itself).

Weeds – I suspect that many of the writers, directors, actors, and producers of this outstanding Showtime dramedy weren’t even born yet when folksinger Malvina Reynolds recorded this song; yet it works in perfect simpatico with the program’s ethos.

The Wire – This lauded HBO series is a compelling portmanteau of an American city in sociopolitical turmoil. The Blind Boys of Alabama’s urban blues hits just the right notes.

WKRP – I’ve worked in broadcasting since Marconi, so trust me when I say that this sitcom remains the most accurate depiction of life in the biz. Tom Wells composed the breezy theme, show creator Hugh Wilson wrote the lyrics, and Steve Carlisle performs it.

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and one more thing…

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R.I.P. Adam West. He was a class act; especially apparent if you watch the excellent 2013 documentary, Starring Adam West. He weathered his “one role” cult status with grace, wit, and a considerable amount of god-given charm. My favorite role of his was a wonderfully droll performance as an aging Lothario in Michael Tolkin’s criminally underappreciated 1994 social satire The New Age…which  hints at what “might have been.” Weirdly enough, the Batman theme was one of the “finalists” I discarded in the process of whittling down my list. Well, no excuses now. So…in memoriam:

We are all Freddy

By Dennis Hartley

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It is often pointed out that the presidency provides a “bully pulpit” for whomever holds  office at the time. But generally, that is a figure of speech; not every POTUS necessarily abuses that “privilege”.  And yes, “they’ve all done it” at one time or another, regardless of party affiliation. However, I think I can safely say that (in my lifetime, at least) we’ve never seen a bigger bully in the White House than Donald J. Trump. And as we all remember from grade school, bullies are empowered by submission. Which is why this was so cathartic:

Of course, due to certain restrictions imposed upon a network TV host, Stephen couldn’t say what we are all really thinking. Freddy?

What Freddy said.

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UPDATE 5/6/17– Are you fucking kidding me? From Rolling Stone:

The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission revealed Friday that the agency is considering whether to fine Stephen Colbert over the Late Show host’s controversial joke about Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

On Monday’s Late Show, Colbert quipped that “the only thing [Trump’s] mouth is good for is being Vladimir Putin’s cock holster.” The joke drew accusations of homophobia, a viral #FireColbert campaign and FCC complaints against Colbert.

In an interview Friday, FCC chairman Ajit Pai told a Philadelphia radio station, “I have had a chance to see the clip now and so, as we get complaints — and we’ve gotten a number of them — we are going to take the facts that we find and we are going to apply the law as it’s been set out by the Supreme Court and other courts and we’ll take the appropriate action.”

Pai added, “Traditionally, the agency has to decide, if it does find a violation, what the appropriate remedy should be. A fine, of some sort, is typically what we do,” Variety reports.

On Wednesday, Colbert commented on the controversial joke. “At the end of that monologue, I had a few choice insults for the president,” Colbert said. “I don’t regret that.”

However, Colbert admitted that, in retrospect, he wishes he chose his words more carefully. “While I would do it again, I would change a few words that were cruder than they needed to be,” he added.

As for whether the joke was homophobic, Colbert added, “I’m not going to repeat the phrase, but I just want to say for the record, life is short, and anyone who expresses their love for another person, in their own way, is to me, an American hero. I think we can all agree on that. I hope even the president and I can agree on that. Nothing else. But, that.”

Stay tuned for state-controlled media…