Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Weekend In Chicago

While in Chicago this weekend, my wife and I went to Second City to take in its latest show, "Depraved New World." I've been there several times and am always entertained by the fast-paced blackout sketches that make up the 90-minute performance. They don't all hit the bulls-eye, but the percentages are pretty high.

Many people may go to Second City expecting to see a completely improvised show a la "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" That's not what they do on their main stage. The show is more than 95% scripted and it's not until the second act that they ask for audience suggestions and then wing it within a structured setup. Those tend to be the weakest sketches of the evening because, while instant comedy can be quite good, comedy that has been written, honed, and rehearsed is almost always better.

A decade ago, we were there on a night when some scouts from "Saturday Night Live" were in the audience. I don't know if anyone in that cast eventually made it to the show, but I'm sure all of them had stars in their eyes, since Second City has been a launching pad for so many "SNL" stars. The only performer whose name I can remember from a Second City show is Ryan Stiles, who was part of the troupe we saw at the World's Fair in Vancouver in the spring of 1986. He was clearly the standout and we noted his name as someone destined for stardom.

Perhaps one of the performers we saw on Saturday will follow in his footsteps (and those of dozens of other Second City alumni). They were Chelsea Devantez, John Hartman, Emily Walker, John Sabine, Niccole Thurman, and Daniel Strauss. The former three had a role in writing as well as performing the show, while the latter three were understudies (brought up from one of the Second City touring companies to fill in this weekend), but you couldn't tell, as they were all funny and talented.

Our Chicago weekend also included live music at a couple of blues clubs and a performance on Navy Pier by the acrobats of Cirque Shanghai Warriors who, unlike Cirque du Soleil, don't bog things down with storylines -- they just do remarkable things with their bodies -- and they don't charge inflated prices. We got a pair of tickets for a total price of $43. For that money, you can't even stand in line for a Cirque du Soleil show in Vegas.

We also took an architecture tour of downtown on a boat cruising the Chicago River. Our tour guide was an enthusiastic young guy named Victor who studied architecture and seems obsessed by it. He talked virtually non-stop for the 75-minute ride but was never boring as he described the buildings, the history, and the open lots that will soon have new skyscrapers on them. He also won our approval by openly showing contempt for the building with the name "Trump" garishly staring down at us.

No visit to Chicago would be complete without some great deep-dish pizza at Gino's East, an institution that always has a line out the door. This being Labor Day weekend, with lots of tourists in town plus locals enjoying a last shot at summer before schools open in Chicago, the place was packed. In fact, at lunchtime, we had tried to get into another famous deep-dish place, Giordano's, but the crowd was too big to even consider waiting around. So we made up for it with dinner at Gino's East, where the wait was only about 20 minutes.

Having been there before, we knew that once we sat down and ordered, we'd have to wait another 45 minutes for our pizza because they bake them from scratch. Meanwhile, we had one of their house salads with a house dressing, and had to remind each other not to fill up on salad (!) because we knew what was coming.

When the pizza arrived, that first bite reminded us why we'd been patient. Like the comedy at Second City, this deep-dish came from a recipe well-rehearsed and honed over a long time.

Randi, Carson, and Geller

In a Miami Herald profile, James Randi discusses how he helped Johnny Carson show up Uri Geller when the latter was booked on the show to do one of his mentalist tricks:

Tonight Show host Johnny Carson, an amateur magician himself, called Randi for advice about an upcoming Geller appearance on the show.

Geller had been wowing audiences with the same experiment that had won over the Stanford scientists, a variation of the shell game that street hustlers use to con rubes out of their money. Geller would be presented with a tray bearing 10 small aluminum film canisters. Nine were empty; the 10th contained a steel ball. Geller’s challenge was to pick the one containing the ball, which he was able to do with near 100 percent accuracy.

“Glue the containers to the tray so they can’t move,” Randi advised Carson. “And his powers will mysteriously fail.” Sure enough, Geller couldn’t pick a container, even when Carson paused the show’s taping for 20 minutes. “I don’t feel strong tonight,” he complained before finally giving up.

“I had already seen film of Geller doing this trick,” Randi recalled. “Every time he was offered the tray, he tilted it slightly, this way and that way. I was sure he was watching for tiny movements of the canisters that would tell him which one had the ball inside.”

Their wrangling, legal and otherwise, continues to this day. It is anything but friendly. A television crew once accidentally caught footage of a chance encounter of the two men in which Randi refused to shake Geller’s hand. (“Do you really suppose Churchill and Hitler would shake hands?” Randi once retorted when asked about the incident.)

Randi, however, thinks their quarrel may be nearly over. Noting that Geller in recent interviews has begun referring to himself as a “mystifier” rather than a psychic, Randi believes Geller may be on the verge of confessing that his paranormal powers were just a long, profitable hoax.

“He wants to come out and say, ‘I fooled everybody.’ Or, at least, everybody but me,” Randi said. “But he can’t do that. Universities and governments all over the world have spent millions of dollars investigating the Geller Effect, as he calls it. He’d be sued out the gazoo if he said he was faking it. Now I think he’s trying to ease the transition with this word ‘mystifier,’ so people won’t be so mad at him when he finally admits that none of it was true.”
Here's how it looked that night on NBC...

Read the full piece on Randi here.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Our Gloomy Economic Mood

My brother, Seth, wrote a piece about Labor Day in which he asks why, if the US has emerged from the recession, the economic mood of the country remains so bad:

It's not that Americans believe the economy isn't working; they know it isn't working for them. Their families are not getting ahead. Their lives are not improving -- at least not from an economic standpoint.

Working Americans understand the economic facts of their lives, and they do not like what they see.

Americans believe firmly in fairness. Most Americans expect to work hard and be rewarded for their work. In today's economy, they know that's not happening.

Some cynics have tried to blame the unfairness in our economy on immigrants, big government (read, President Barack Obama) and even "social decline" (meaning same-sex marriage, among other issues).

But even casual news watchers know that large corporations are earning record profits while wages remain stagnant. Wall Street indexes reach record levels, but workers' pensions are increasingly inadequate to support a dignified retirement.

Some companies abandon the United States in search of even lower taxes and less regulation. Congress acts as though American democracy is irreparably broken. The Supreme Court, on the same day this summer, recognized a corporation's right to religious liberty, but denied that home health care workers are "full" employees of the state government that pays them, with the same right to organize as other state workers.

Working Americans can see that institutions -- public and private -- are failing them.
Read Seth's full piece here.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Squeezed On A Plane

There were two stories this week week about scuffles on airplanes after a passenger wasn't happy about the person in front of them reclining the seat. In both cases, things got out of hand enough that the pilot had to make an emergency landing and have the troublemakers removed from the flight. In both instances, it was the person in the seat behind the recliner that was made out to be the offender.

But they're wrong.

First, we have to stop using the word "recline" for this action. Anyone who has ever sat in a recliner knows that reclining involves more than leaning. Airplane seats do not recline -- if your recliner at home only tilted back a couple of inches, you'd return it to the store -- nor do they make anyone more comfortable. But they do violate the personal space of the person behind you, particularly if the tray table is down.

As a tall person, I run into this situation often when I fly. The airlines have crunched the space between seat rows so much that, if I don't get an exit row seat (with a couple of extra inches of room), I'll spend the entire flight with my knees uncomfortably pressed against the seat in front of me. And if that person reclines, I'll be able to feel their kidneys with my kneecaps.

On a flight a few years ago, I politely asked the guy in front of me not to tilt his seat back, and he immediately became upset at my "outrageous" request, responding that he had paid for that seat and had the right to recline if he wanted to. I told him that while he had the right, I hoped he'd be courteous enough to respect my right to not be in pain. He blew me off, so I asked again, and he raised his voice enough to make a flight attendant stop serving drinks to other passengers to come over and see what the problem was.

Before I could say anything, he complained to her that I wouldn't let him tilt back, and she turned to me, saying stiffly, "Sir, he has the right to recline his seat." As if that settled the matter, she turned back to the drink cart, but not before I replied, "I know he does. I'm just asking him not to be an asshole!!" I didn't press the matter any further, because it was obvious I wasn't going to win the battle and Mr. Courtesy ahead of me couldn't care less about the discomfort he was causing.

He reminded me of people who stand up in concerts without regard for the blocked view they're creating for those behind them. Or people who do nothing to quiet a raucous and noisy child in a restaurant. Or someone carrying on a loud cellphone conversation in a crowded space. They just don't care about the negative impact they're having on everyone else.

Solving this problem is an easy one -- airlines must immediately remove the tilt function from all seats. Or install a "no assholes" section.

A Reporter's Exit Video

There's a video getting lots of online play of reporter Lisa Desjardins on her last day at CNN in DC, in which she laments the closure of the network's Capitol Hill bureau due to staff cutbacks while she steals a bunch of office supplies (and a first aid kit off the wall). It's gone viral, I suppose, because lots of people who lose their jobs want to take a shot at the boss before they're gone. I'm sure Desjardins thought the concept was hysterical when she recorded it.

It's not. As I watched it, all I could think about was her next potential employer seeing it and decided not to hire her based on it. It reminds me of all those videos people have posted on Facebook in the last decade in which they're doing something they'll regret later, from a drunken night out to some harsh words for their own boss to dissing an ex to doing something else that qualifies them as one of my Knuckleheads In The News®.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Knuckleheads In The News® 8/29/14

My latest batch of Knuckleheads In The News® stories include a woman with a hairball problem, an ice bucket challenge victim, and disorderly conduct from the back seat.  Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Harris Challenge 8/29/14

This week's Harris Challenge -- the most fun you can have with your radio on -- includes trivia categories "What Are They Talking About," "Labor Day Multiple Choice," and "Brangelina's Exes." Listen and play along, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

KTRS Today

I'll be back on KTRS/St. Louis this afternoon, with my Harris Challenge (the most fun you can have with your radio on) and a brand new batch of Knuckleheads In The News®. Also, Colin Jeffrey and I will review "The November Man," "The Trip To Italy," and other showbiz stuff. You can listen over the air, via the station's free smartphone app or via KTRS.com.

Best Breaking News Report Ever

From the folks at The Onion...

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Knuckleheads In The News® 8/25/14

My latest batch of Knuckleheads In The News® stories include a bad way to call off a wedding, a naked bank robber, and cocaine implants.  Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Cars Talking To Cars

Google may be working on a car that drives itself, but Debby Bezzina is working on cars that talk to each other. As she explained on my KTRS show, the idea is to have vehicles share information about their location, speed, etc. to help avoid accidents and keep traffic patterns more consistent. She's also working on having cars get data from roadways, so you'd know if there was a detour ahead, or how long you have until that green light changes, or what speed you should maintain to guarantee no red lights.

Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!