Listen to me on KTRS/St. Louis every Friday, 3-6pm CT

Wednesday, December 16, 1998

It's A Gas Gas Gas

In the biggest business deal ever, Exxon & Mobil are merging. They promise it will be good for us, the general public. Unless, of course, you happen to be the part of the general public that calls itself Exxon and Mobil employees. In that case, you may find yourself among the 20,000 or so people expected to get a pink slip from Moxxon.

Actually, in the interest of keeping costs down, the whole Moxxon firing procedure will be self serve, and you'll have to pick up your pink slip yourself from a minimum wage employee in a bulletproof booth near the center aisle, near the$2 six packs of Barq's Root Beer.

I suppose it would be silly to ask Moxxon to retain at least some of those employees in the capacity of restroom cleaner.

Maybe some of those soon-to-be-laid-off folks can be hired by the NFL to monitor the coin toss, which has lately become more difficult to execute than a shot-by-shot remake of "Plan 9 From Outer Space" (the higher-ups at the NFL were considering dropping the coin toss concept altogether and changing to a round of "eenie- meenie-minie-moe," until they tested it and one referee accidentally said "eenie- manny-moe-and-jack," and gave possession to the Pep Boys).

Frankly, I'm still pissed at Exxon for the whole Valdez oil spill thing. But I'm more amazed at the genius decisions that Mobil has made in the interest of customer service over the last couple of years.

First, they introduced a concept called, "friendly serve." This meant that when you pulled into a Mobil station, even though you were gonna pump your own gas, some high school kid would come out and ask you, "How you doin'?" Oh, so friendly! This was just the kind of small talk that had been sorely lacking in most gas station transactions heretofore. You'd respond, "Fine." He would then hover nearby, not unlike a Trekkie who has heard a rumor that Brent Spiner might be in the room, while several awkward moments of silence passed until some other customer pulled up and he went off to greet them. Mobil seems to have thought that we all just needed another friendly communication in our day and, dammit, they were going to supply it.

How this improved customer relations I do not understand. You see, we had all just gotten used to the idea of doing our gas station business without interacting with any petro-employees at all, thanks to the introduction of the gas pumps that accept credit cards. Now you could conduct your fuel transaction on your own and be on your way. This meant no more dealing with the guy in the booth -- although he's still there, cowering in the corner, afraid that the next human who approaches will kill him and take all the cash, not to mention the rack of KitKats and Zippos he has arranged so nicely in his plexiglass world.

Still, this was not enough for Mobil.

Sensing that we could still be annoyed some more, they invented the SpeedPass. This is a device that you carry around on your key chain and wave at a special sensor on the Mobil pump to activate it, and then your purchase is charged to whatever credit card you had provided when you filled out your application.

Let's review. You have to have a credit card to apply for a SpeedPass, but you don't use your credit card anymore. Now you use another piece of plastic which acts as a stand-in for your credit card. Why not just use the card? Because your card doesn't do its own stunts anymore and, they would have you believe, this is so much easier! Yeah, that inserting and removing the credit card was taking up well over two full seconds of our busy day!

That's not the part of the refueling process that was burning precious seconds away, Mobil. What seems to be consuming so much time is waiting for the gas to flow into the tank!!! Now, if you and your new Exxon pals can invent some sort of injection system in which the gasoline can be inserted into our cars faster than a Jerry Springer guest can cross the stage and toss a chair, then you'll be onto something we want.

While you're at it, see if you can develop oil tankers that don't spill their goo as if the ocean were an intern's dress.

Of course, that kind of innovation probably needs a lot of time and a lot of inventive people. Fortunately, there are about 20,000 men and women with experience who would love to help.

Sunday, October 04, 1998

Feel-Good Movie Review Of The Year!

I'm looking through the movie listings to figure out whether there's anything worth spending my time and money on, when my eyes are drawn to the an ad for the movie, Urban Legend. There, in bold letters, is this quote from a reviewer: "A heart-pounding, edge of your seat treat!"

Now, I haven't heard of Urban Legend, and have no idea what it's about, but that's the sort of quote that makes you take notice. After all, who doesn't want to sit on the edge of their seat with their heart-pounding? C'mon, that's the kind of movie that made Steven Spielberg rich! The ad is working just as they want it to.

So, which big name movie critic is lavishing this praise on the movie? Is it Joel Siegel, Jeffrey Lyons, Gene Shalit? Is it one of their print counterparts, like Janet Maslin of the New York Times? Richard Schickel of Time magazine? Peter Travers of Rolling Stone? Steven Hunter of The Washington Post?

No, it's that heavyweight of movie reviews, Linda Stotter. You don't know who Linda is? Neither do I. But according to the credit next to her big movie quote, Linda writes for something called "Entertainment TimeOut."

Sounds like that arcade place down at the mall, doesn't it?

Whoever she is, she probably wrote some puff-piece review of an obvious piece of trash, and since no other critic gave them anything close to a quote they could use, they went with Linda's rave. That's the way it works now. Take a look for yourself, and you can tell from the people they quote just how bad the movie must be.

For instance, based solely on the ads, the new Robin Williams movie, What Dreams May Come, must be in trouble already (although, as I write this, it may be having a record-breaking weekend). Here are three actual quotes they're using to promote it: "Robin Williams gives the performance of his lifetime!" "You won't believe your eyes!" "Two thumbs up!"

Of course, that last one is from Siskel & Ebert, the only ones you've ever heard of. The other two are from Bonnie Churchill of the National News Syndicate -- which I thought Elliott Ness had busted years ago -- and Sam Hallenbeck of the Theater Radio Network, which I believe is the one that plays non-stop Celine Dion songs into the theater while you stare at slides with ads for the local pawn broker.

They also include a quote from Russ Lieberman, Mr. Moviephone. What??? You mean the guy who is paid by the movie studios to promote their movies on an automated telephone line? He's the one you're quoting to convince me to see the movie? What was the last time he said anything even remotely negative about any movie? This guy has recommended Pauly Shore movies, fer chrissake!

There's another reviewer quote from Brian Sullivan of something called Movie Reviews and More. I'll bet even the people at the Thrifty Nickel don't take this publication seriously. What's the "and more"? A 10% off Jiffy Lube coupon? Would you like fries with that?

More actual quotes. These are for One True Thing, the new Meryl Streep movie: "Bring a hanky and an appreciation for some of the finest acting of the year" -- Larry Ratliff, KABB. "One of the year's best" -- Jim Ferguson, KMSB.

Again, we're in serious trouble here. The tipoff is those call letters, and it doesn't matter whether they're for a TV or radio station (and you can't tell in these instances, nor do you have any idea what town they're from). The point is that the movie company couldn't get a positive quote out of anyone with a national reputation -- and they apparently couldn't get one from your own local paper's reviewer, either!

Take it from someone who has talked about movies on the air for a long time...the only way a broadcast review can ever be quoted is if the reviewer actually sends a copy of the review to the movie's publicist. In many cases, the publicists demand that you do this in order to continue to get the free passes to the pre-release screenings. If you had to send yours, knowing that those freebies were at their discretion, and you weren't important enough in the media food chain to wield any power whatsoever, just how critical would you be? Bingo. Thus, the call-letter-quotes. And this especially applies to anyone from a radio station who gets quoted. We're whores who wouldn't do anything that might jeopardize free stuff, so you're guaranteed something puffy.

Three more quick movie ad quotes:

For Rush Hour: "Rush to Rush Hour!" -- Anne Marie O'Connor, Mademoiselle. Simple and cute, and certainly a movie that's perfect for her magazine's target audience, right?

For Strangeland: "Dee Snider is a horror icon for the next millennium" -- Fangoria magazine. Damn, I let my subscription lapse and missed the full-length review. Oh, well, I'm sure it's on their website, www.killyourparents.com.

For A Night at the Roxbury: The ad contains no quotes at all, which should tell you everything you need to know. They couldn't even get something nice from Mr. Moviephone!!

I'm not saying that these people aren't entitled to their opinion. They are. All I'm saying is that the guy who delivers your pizza has about as much credibility on fine dining as most of these ad-quote people do about what movie you should see.

On the other hand, I'll admit I'm a little jealous. I'd love to be quoted myself, which is why I offer these evergreen quotes, perfect for any movie:

"It's the feel-good hit of the spring/summer/fall/winter!"
"Rarely has a film been projected so well in a darkened theater!"
"Call the academy now and tell them we have a winner for best dolly grip!"
"It was almost in focus!"
And the one I like to throw in for the theater owners: "Remember, the biggest popcorn and soda are always your best value!"
Credit those to "Paul Harris, of Harris Online TimeOut Syndicate And More!"

Sunday, September 13, 1998

Death Of A Newsman: John Holliman

Amid all the other news that grabbed the television and newspaper headlines this weekend, you might have missed the story of the death of a newsman.
John Holliman died early Saturday morning in a car accident not far from his home in Georgia. My sympathies and best thoughts go to his son, Jay, and his wife, Diane. I can't let his death pass without sharing a few personal memories.

I got to know John about five years ago after he did a presentation at the Smithsonian about what it had been like to be in Baghdad on the night the allied air attack began during the Gulf War in January, 1991. He had a great sense of humor, and I was so taken with his storytelling that night that I approached him afterwards and invited him to come on my show to share some of those stories and more. He accepted right away, although it was several weeks before his CNN schedule allowed him the free time to spend the morning with me in the studio.

For John, this was a joyous return to Washington morning radio, where he had worked many years earlier as a newsman for WASH-FM (when it was owned by Metromedia and still had an actual news department). For me, it was an opportunity to get to know a man whose work I admired, and to listen to him describe the emotions and journalistic thrills of some of the events he had covered.

John's travel schedule prohibited him from making a return visit to my show for awhile, but we spoke on the phone every once in awhile. He shared with me the joy of having his new baby boy come into his life, and how much being a father meant to him. When my daughter was born the next year, he congratulated me and welcomed me to the great adventure of parenthood.

Although he was most famous as one of the three Boys In Baghdad (along with Bernard Shaw and Peter Arnett), John reported thousands of stories in a career that included long stints at both the Associated Press and CNN. He won a Peabody Award in 1976. He was the first correspondent CNN hired for their Washington bureau and was part of their original on-air team when the network signed on in 1980. He covered the White House, weathered hurricanes, covered the Tianamen Square story in 1989, and for a long time had been the network's go-to guy on all space stories.

In fact, it was a space story that was the basis of John's last visit to my show, in the summer of 1997. He had moved to Atlanta by then, and was anchoring coverage of NASA's unmanned mission to Mars, which was beaming live television pictures back to Earth. I called him because I had seen many of his reports, and was again impressed with his ability to make the complexities of this scientific miracle seem so simple.

That's what made John Holliman so good at his job. He was able to tell the story. What more could you ask of a newsman?

During our discussion on the air, we talked about the possibility of a manned mission to Mars, and he said he thought it was possible in our lifetime. He talked about the delight of seeing his by-then-4-year-old son Jay accessing the Mars mission on the internet. Then, John reported -- for the first time anywhere -- that although it hadn't been announced publicly, "I've been hearing from people who I trust at NASA and him himself, who tell me that probably next summer we'll see John Glenn from the flight deck of the space shuttle." He was only off by a few months. Glenn's launch date is October 29th, and John was scheduled to co-anchor CNN's coverage of the mission with another TV space-aholic, Walter Cronkite.

I asked him if he wanted to go into space. Without hesitation, he said, "I'd love to go on the shuttle if they'd let me." Off the air, he surprised me by divulging that he had already had several discussions with some NASA big shots, and that the wheels were supposedly in motion to actually make it happen. That would have made John the first journalist in space.

Unfortunately, John never reached that goal, and we're all a little poorer for it. Had he been able to make the trip, he would have brought an everyman quality to the mission and shared the experience with us in a way that would have made each of us feel as if we were along for the ride.

John Holliman would have been able to take that amazing adventure and do what he did best -- tell it to us as one great story.

Sunday, September 06, 1998

Science Marches On

Labor Day is here, and Just Plain Harris returns from summer vacation! Our first class of the new school year is science.

Let's begin with the team of scientists from Canada, America, Britain, and Norway, who have been working in Oslo, Norway, exhuming the bodies of six miners from an Arctic cemetery. Why? Because these miners died of the deadly Spanish flu back in 1918, and the researchers believe that fragments of the flu virus may be frozen in the lungs and other organs of the miners. So they're going to dig these guys up, thaw them out, and try to isolate the virus.

Oh, did I forget to mention that the Spanish flu was the worst pandemic of this century, taking the lives of between 20 and 40 million people? Do we really want to thaw this virus out and give it a chance to kill again?

You say I'm overreacting. Then why is this crew supplied with eight tons of high-tech gear, including space suits with special breathing masks? Has no one seen the movie, "Outbreak," or read the book, "Hot Zone"? Don't we have enough diseases to conquer in our modern life that we don't need to dig one up from 70 years ago?

If they really want to experiment with diseases, I'd suggest stopping by the waiting area of any pharmacy, as I did recently. What a soothing thing it is to be told to have a seat while they fill your prescription, only to find yourself sitting with a dozen other sick people who have god-knows-what wrong with them. The only thing you can be really sure of is that half of them have something easily communicable.

That's why I spent the next 15 minutes strolling through the drugstore, glancing at the shelves, amazed at some of the real advances in over-the-counter medicine. Such as clear calamine lotion.

Remember when, as a kid, you got some poison ivy on you, and before you could even begin to scratch yourself silly, Mom would lather on several gallons of pink calamine lotion? This was particularly galling as a teenager, because there's nothing more appealing to the opposite sex than dried pink splotches all over your arms and legs -- splotches that virtually spell out "contagious!" And just in case the visual didn't disgust everyone, the lotion was nicely aromatic, too. Kinda like week-old cottage cheese. But now, thanks to years of lab work and thousands of development dollars, calamine lotion is clear and unscented (though for you nostalgia nuts, it's still available in the classic pink). So go ahead and roll around in some poison oak!

That's a nice advancement, and I applaud them. It's no cancer cure, but it's nice. Next, I want the new scientific geniuses to help in the area of dentistry. In particular, I'm hoping they can advance the oral business a little further away from its Marquis De Sade roots.

I have roots on the mind because I just had my first root canal done. Some aspects of dental technology have progressed enormously, like the new kind of cavity-filling amalgam that won't set off the x-ray machine at the airport. Plus, there are lasers and more powerful bonding agents, and I have no problem with any of those. Happy to have them, in fact.

Unfortunately, the basics of dentistry behind these newfangled gizmos have not changed. Dr. Oral is still in there poking, probing, and scraping with long, sharp implements. I still feel like Dustin Hoffman as I sit there looking up at Laurence Olivier, DDS. The light is still positioned so that no matter how your move your head, it's always glaring hypnotically in your eyes. And it's so reassuring to have the lead vest placed across your torso while they x-ray your head, which gets no protection at all. I notice that the dental personnel still depart the room for that little radioactive interval, leaving my brain free to absorb as much of that spectrum as possible.

But you haven't really lived the dental experience until you've had the pleasure of the use of the dental dam.

Until now, I had only heard the expression "dental dam" once before. I think it was late one night when I flicked past the show "LoveLine" on MTV, and they had a question (more explicit than I care to repeat) about safe sex for alternative lifestyles. Now, here I was in a completely asexual situation -- it better be -- having this rubber-and-metal device imposed on my teeth and gums.

In case you're not forming a good mental image here, just imagine someone with their jaw wired shut, then yanked open, and a mouse pad slapped over their gums. The dental assistant explained that this new torture apparatus was there so they could isolate the area where they were going to do the root canal while keeping the chemicals and other effluvia away from the rest of my mouth and throat. Okay, good idea, but isn't this the job that used to be performed by that hook-shaped saliva sucking thing? Oh, I got that, too.

Sounds like just the situation to put you at ease in the dental chair, doesn't it? Wait, don't answer yet! I also was given safety goggles to wear -- I think that was a precaution in case he had to do some light arc welding between my molars -- and several of those cotton cigarette butts they shove under your lips for whatever reason. Even if I had wanted to know, I couldn't ask any more questions because the damn dam prevented me from forming words other than "qznoolf" and "glphrmtnwphhht."

This is progress? Why is dentistry so far behind the "let's make it easy for the patient" curve? An opthomologist can take a laser and correct someone's nearsightedness in an hour on an out-patient basis. My friend Andrew can have his hernia repaired in the morning and still be back on his carphone to do more business deals before noontime. Cattle steroids can help Mark McGwire break Roger Maris' record. Why does it take three hours and two visits for a dentist to scrub my roots clean?

Now I understand why Grandpa liked having the ability to take his teeth out and put them in a glass every night. Believe me, the thought did cross my mind during the second session. Go ahead, rip them all out and make me a PoliGrip spokesman. Then, when they need work, I'll drop them off as if you ran a one-hour photo place, while I do some other errands. When you're done, I'll pick them up, slap them in, and be on my way. Then you can leave the dental dam to Monica.

I still think the stain on the dress is calamine lotion.

Monday, July 20, 1998

Pooling Around

I was at the pool this weekend with my family when I overheard this query: "That is a great swimsuit! Where did you get it?"

Guess which gender the questioner was? That's right! Female. And it was followed by a 20-minute conversation on the topic of swimwear.

In the history of humanity, no man has ever asked another man about his swimsuit. In fact, only five times has a guy even noticed another man's swimsuit, and two of those times involved Greg Louganis.

We simply don't pay attention to this sort of thing the way women do. Women not only notice each other's swimwear choice, they even know where they bought it! "Oh, I saw that on sale last week. I thought it was too green for me, but it really looks great on you."

At the pool, a man's interests are limited to: 1) sucking in our stomachs; 2) keeping an eye on the kids; 3) checking out the only Pool Mom who dares wear a bikini, 4) wondering if we'll be there long enough to have a pizza delivered poolside; 5) involuntarily sucking in our stomachs even more whenever the bikini-clad Pool Mom walks by; and 6) considering doing a search to find out who invented the Marco Polo game, then tracking him down and having him chained to the diving board of a pool filled with ten-year-olds playing the game nonstop, until his ears bleed chlorine.

Once a man reaches a certain age, the pool-going experience is different. You know you've reached this age when...

  • You wouldn't even consider squeezing a Speedo onto your body. Now, you're just looking for a swimsuit that won't fill up with that embarrassing floating air bubble in the water.
  • You want to get a little bit of exercise, but before doing a couple of laps, you do a quick mental check of the lifeguard in the chair, and end up doubting that he/she is big enough to drag your lifeless, waterlogged body out of the water.
  • You get hit on the head by a tennis ball that a couple of kids are throwing around, and your first reaction is to keep it to teach those damn punks a lesson.
  • You get out of the pool, towel off, and immediately put on a shirt.
Ladies, do you know something that we don't about how pool water affects the human head? Most men who get in the pool at some point end up completely wet from head to toe. Yet I have actually seen women get into the pool wearing earrings, a necklace, and sunglasses. They're even wearing makeup! They have no intention of moistening anything above the shoulders.

At the other end of the immersion scale are the teenage guys, who -- when they're not trying to impress the female lifeguard with their ability to drown each other -- still compete in the time- honored fashion to see who can make the biggest splash off the diving board.

What's interesting is that there has been no progress in the mechanics of creating widespread wetness. They're still doing the classic Can-Opener, even though no teenager has touched an actual can-opener since the flip-top became standard two decades ago. Of course, many teens are Civil War buffs, so The Cannonball is still viable as a simultaneous splash-inducer and historical tribute. But you'd think that by now someone would have come up with something new. Science marches on, but it's doubtful that anyone will ever invent anything that surpasses the perpetual beauty and majesty of an Atomic Belly Flop.

Every pool has a Melanoma Man. He's the guy who sits on a chaise lounge for hours at a time, until his skin has achieved the color of cinnamon toast and the texture of bulletin board cork. He uses lotion, but it has an SPF of minus three. Every once in awhile, he gets in the pool for a few minutes, mostly to cool down his body temperature from that of newly laid road tar. If you watch carefully as he walks down the steps into the water, you can sometimes see steam rise.

It's for him that I have news of an impending scientific miracle. The Russian space program is talking about deploying and testing a solar-reflecting satellite. It's 82 feet across, and when it catches the sun's rays and reflects them back to earth, it will be able to light up an area eight miles wide (note to Roger McGuinn: possibility for endorsement bucks with a minor change of old Byrds lyrics).

They say the light, which will be bright enough to read by, is being developed to help cities in the far north that are bathed in darkness throughout so much of the winter. Seems to me that the Russians aren't thinking this through the capitalist American way. Think of it: an outdoor tanning parlor open dusk to dawn! Melanoma Man could work all day and still tan his leathery hide all night!

The scientists who designed this illumination constellation report it will have a downside, however. Even at full radiance, the light from the satellite still won't be bright enough to make it possible for men to notice each other's swimsuits.

Monday, June 15, 1998

The Price Is Wrong

I will never be a contestant on "The Price Is Right." I am clueless about money. Not about how to make it, or what it's worth, but about how much some things cost.

Don't get me wrong. I know that the pizza lunch buffet at Joe's is four bucks and is a helluva bargain when a big guy like me sits down. Unlike every presidential candidate, I have a pretty good idea what a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk costs, what they'll charge me to dry clean my shirts, and how much I'll have to lay out for an oil change.

I've always been good at math, so I can figure out how many cans of Turtle Wax and Rice-A- Roni to buy so that I can qualify for a robust round of Plinko, but I'm lost when it comes time to price the items I've never even thought about before. Look, there's a 13-piece living room set and it comes with Karistan floor covering, whatever that is! Hey, there's the combination billiards table and outdoor meat smokehouse! Wow, there's a model who looks like a hooker (no, I have no idea, don't even ask) and she's pointing to a seven ounce bottle of some kind of jewelry cleaner! I can't help but wonder how many times Rod Roddy has to pre-read his copy, because he's never seen any of this crap before, either.

And forget about the price of items you see in print, particularly if it's on glossy paper. How many times have you seen an ad for a store you've never heard of, featuring an attractive woman wearing a dress with a rather simple print pattern, and then been surprised to see that the price has a comma in it?

There, on the back page of a magazine, was an ad for Crate & Barrel. The picture showed four wooden chairs, identical except for their colors. They looked pretty simple to me, and I figured they'd go for about fifty bucks apiece. I was downright shocked when the small lettering below said that each "Handcrafted Village Chair" cost $199.

Huh? Each? These aren't nice dining room chairs we're talking about. They're the kind you'd find behind every public school teacher's classroom desk. They look like your pal Lenny bought them at the Unfinished Furniture store, brought them home to the garage, and went to work on them with a can of spray paint. In the photo, I swear I can see where Lenny missed a couple of spots.

I held up the magazine and asked my wife how much she thought one of these chairs cost. She glanced casually over at the page and answered, "Two hundred dollars." Bingo!

"How do you know that?," I wondered. She knocked me over with her reply: "That's how much chairs cost." They do? Really? Well, call me Alicia Silverstone!

I was at the auto dealership last week finalizing my purchase of a new car. I had done all the research online, had all the figures, and had bargained my way into a damn good price on exactly the car I wanted. Even had the salesman show me what the invoice price was on all the available options, and that's when that "I had no idea" light went on over my head again.

There, on the price list, were two items I didn't expect to see: Floor Mats and Heated Side Mirrors. Okay, so my brain quickly figures that the mats have gotta cost next-to-nothing, because I can pick those up myself at any auto parts place and plop them down without a cent of labor cost. Aren't they standard? The dealer probably throws those in if you ask nicely enough. But the mirrors? Well, that's gotta run you a pretty penny. After all, they gotta run the heating thing somehow from wherever it starts inside the car up and around to the outside of the car, and that sounds like factory work, and you gotta have two union guys handle that, minimum, and before long your parts and labor are, what, a couple hundred bucks?

Wrong! The Heated Side Mirrors cost a grand total of $24. Those oh-so-easy Floor Mats are going to run you $80!

Maybe this was a supply and demand thing. Everyone wants the Floor Mats, because even when you know as little about cars as I do, you at least know this is the one part of the car you can maintain yourself without breaking it, thanks to that super-sucker seventy-five cent vacuum at the car wash. On the other hand, very few people must want the Heated Side Mirrors. It just seems wrong that in the dead of winter when we're freezing our butts off on the inside, those mirrors are sitting there nice and toasty on the outside.

So you can see why I'm never going to get a shot at Bob Barker's Showcase Showdown. But I have an idea. We should get Bob to make the prices a little more right for those of us in the real world. Ask me which gas station takes six cents off on Wacky Wednesday, what internet access runs, and the basic amount I'll need on a farecard when I take Metro downtown. Ask me how much you should raise when you're holding a full house of kings and tens and no one at the table is even showing a pair. I'll show you what a showdown is all about! Now we're talking money!

Oh, well. Maybe I can be on that other show, "Win Ben Stein's Chairs."

Thursday, May 28, 1998

Phil Hartman's Lasting Impression

He was in a different league than the rest of the comic actors on "Saturday Night Live." When you think of the characters that inhabited that show over the years, you remember that Gilda Radner was Roseanne Rosannadanna, Jon Lovitz was Tommy Flanagan, John Belushi was the Samurai, Nora Dunn was Pat Stevens, Eddie Murphy was Mr. Robinson, and Chevy Chase was Chevy Chase.

Phil Hartman won't be remembered for a single character he created on the show. His idiotic and overrated Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer is as forgettable as the entire 1980 cast of SNL.

However, Hartman will be remembered as, by far, the best impressionist the show ever had. Sure, Aykroyd did a good Tom Snyder. Yes, Dana Carvey did the definitive George Bush and Ross Perot. Of course, Billy Crystal had Sammy Davis Jr. down pat. But in watching Aykroyd or Carvey or Crystal, their impressions were just transparent enough to guarantee that you saw their own personalities as part of the people they impersonated.

Not so with Hartman. He really was Bill Clinton at McDonald's. He captured Donahue's ego and persona perfectly. His Johnny Cash was right on the money. He became Ed McMahon when he belted out, "You are correct, sir!!" In nearly every instance, his was the definitive impression.

No one has ever done a better Sinatra, not even Paul Anka. Joe Piscopo had been the leader in the Sinatra imitator field, but his was too passionate a tribute to Frank. When Hartman started doing his bitter, worn down by the years, chip on his shoulder version of Sinatra, he didn't just find a new angle on the man, he also left poor Piscopo in the dust (where he still languishes, by the way). I recall falling off the chair laughing while watching the "McLaughlin Group" sendup with Phil/Frank asking a question of panelist Sinead O'Connor (Jan Hooks in a bald cap), and calling her "Sign-aid" and "Cueball." Merciless and hysterical.

I was never a "NewsRadio" fan, and don't think that's where Phil did his best work. His talent was also wasted in movie trash like "Greedy" with Michael J. Fox, "Jingle All The Way" with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and "Sgt. Bilko" with Steve Martin (the latter was incredibly bad, and didn't even take advantage of the fact that Hartman did an amazing Phil Silvers!). His best work was undeniably on "SNL" and also on "The Simpsons," where he was a great utility voice. In particular, his unctuous Troy McClure character was a riot.

Until his death, I didn't know much about his pre-"SNL" days, except that he was part of the legendary Groundlings improvisational troupe in Los Angeles. It was there that he met Paul Reubens, with whom he wrote "Pee Wee's Big Adventure." Before doing comedy, he had been a graphic designer, working on album covers like Poco's "Legend." He also created the logo for Crosby Stills & Nash, among others. I'll bet that with a visual mind like that, he could actually picture the people he was imitating, which probably facilitated his ability to become them.

In any interview, Hartman was a money-in-the-bank guest. He was always inevitably persuaded to do an impression or two. When he did, he would slip in and out of them seamlessly, sometimes changing from one voice to another at a moment's notice. It was that natural feeling that made his work so appealing. It never seemed forced; it never had a "hey, look at what I can do" quality.

That ability to subvert his own personality within his impressions kept him from being considered a "star" in the public's eye. It's a miscarriage of comic justice that Chris Farley led an overblown tabloid life but in death was hailed as "a brilliant comedian," while Phil Hartman was truly a brilliant comedian in real life who, in death, will now be nothing more than tabloid fodder.

It's said that just before Hartman tried out for "Saturday Night Live," desperate for work, he had auditioned to become the prize announcer on a new version of "Let's Make A Deal." For whatever reason, they turned him down, and Lorne Michaels hired him instead. If it had gone the other way, we would have all missed out on quite a deal, and some damn good comedy, too.

Wednesday, May 20, 1998

Too Close For Comfort

I'm sitting in the corner of the restaurant having lunch with my friend Mark when, all of a sudden, there's a tap on my shoulder. No voice, just a tap.

I turn and look up and there's a guy with slicked-back hair and a gold medallion hanging over his paunchy gut, looking at me with a goofy grin as he asks, "Hey, how ya doin'?" As I answer, "Oh, hanging in there," he rubs my shoulder in the way close friends do. Then he says, "Well, as long as you're above ground, there's nothing to complain about, right?"

While I ponder the complete banality of that remark, he rubs and pats my shoulder while he follows it up with, "You know, the universe can't deal you a bad hand, because you're better than that." I'm completely lost, and we're only half a minute into this baffling exchange.

Unable to work up the energy to even care what this guy is talking about, I blurt out, "So, how are you?" To which he replies, "Hey, you know me. I'm like s**t, I'm everywhere." He accompanies this with a you-know-what-I-mean shoulder shove. All I can muster in response is a single syllable: "Right."

Obviously feeling he has gotten his important message across, he tosses me a "You take it easy, now!" and winks as he walks away. I wait almost a full second before turning back to Mark and telling him, "I have absolutely no idea who that was."

Mark does a spit-take as he laughs, and then asks me, "You don't know that guy? You've never seen him before?" I tell him, "I may have met him somewhere, sometime, but no, I don't know when or where. That's why I didn't introduce you to him." Mark wonders aloud, "Why didn't he introduce himself, and what's with the shoulder rubbing? That seemed inappropriate."

Even if I did know this guy from some previous encounter, how presumptuous it was for him to assume I'd know who he was just by looking up at him. We're not talking about a poker buddy or some celebrity whose identity is immediately obvious. That blank look on my face meant he had to give me a name, a clue, something to help me place him in my mental rolodex.

Hi, Paul, I'm Jim Schmendrick. We met at the "Guess How Many Cheez Doodles Anna Nicole Smith Can Fit In Her Mouth" contest last year. Oh, yeah, Jim, good to see you again. Thanks for the help.

What about the wink? Who winks at anyone anymore? What is that supposed to signify, "I'm a little creepy, but I think I'm ultra-cool"? Yeah, you're about as cool as the guest star on the new Love Boat.

As for the touching, it's more than inappropriate. I have friends who I've known for years, and a handshake is just fine when we greet each other. For instance, Mark and I have been having lunches together for almost a decade, yet we've never thrown our arms around each other before sitting down to a bowl of mongolian barbecue. Sure, really old friends and relatives get a hug if we haven't seen each other for a very long while, but that's reserved for people we're close to; certainly not some casual acquaintance. There has to be more than a passing familiarity before you go past the handshake stage to the rubbing-and-patting-my-shoulder stage.

In the meantime, back off to arm's length and give me some room here, Paco. And leave those empty bromides where they belong, at Mr. Superficial's College Of Interpersonal Communication. That's the school where, on graduation day, Dean Hair-Gel gives you your diploma and gold medallion, plus a shoulder rub, a high-five, and a big old pat on the butt. Whoever that guy was at lunch today, he must have graduated summa cum laude.

Tuesday, May 05, 1998

Lesbians And Live Shots

Months after anyone cared, "Ellen" has been yanked by ABC, but Ellen DeGeneres just can't see why. In this week's Entertainment Weekly cover story, DeGeneres says that ABC fired her "basically because I'm gay." Wrong, Ellen. ABC canceled the show because it wasn't funny anymore and the ratings went down. You did something admirable in becoming TV's first gay lead, but you blew it when you made the entire show about being gay.

No show can keep pounding the exact same theme week after week and expect the audience not to grow weary of it. "Mad About You" had the same problem earlier in the year when they did too many episodes in a row about the Buchman baby. Then someone wised up and realized that while it's okay to make that an important element, it shouldn't be the only focus of the show. Other sitcoms have broken controversial ground before you, but "All In The Family" didn't do an entire season about Edith's breast cancer, nor did "Maude" spend month after month discussing her abortion.

What makes it worse, Ellen, is that you had a remarkable opportunity to show a lesbian character living her life the way she wanted to, without shoving it down the audience's throat (if you'll pardon the expression). And remember that ABC did back you up in the face of a lot of vitriolic criticism and pressure. They deserve credit for giving you so much rope. Too bad you hung yourself with it. It'll be interesting to see if Diane Sawyer challenges you at all when she interviews you Wednesday on "PrimeTime Live."

Speaking of ABC, Monday's "Nightline" was about the TV coverage of the guy who killed himself on an LA freeway last week. There's been a lot of inside-the-biz handwringing about this, because all the Los Angeles TV stations and at least one cable network had helicopter live shots of the guy blowing his head off.

Ironically, in the middle of "Nightline," there was a promo for "NYPD Blue," with the usual disclaimer about "violent scenes." Remember when that was supposed to be a parental warning? Now, it seems like more of a tease.

The stations defend their coverage, saying they were providing a public service because two major freeways were blocked off for hours. Baloney. If those freeways had been blocked by construction crews instead of a nut with an agenda, those newschoppers would never have left the ground.

This wasn't journalism, this was voyeurism. They have the technology to go live, and they know it's going to grab viewers, so context be damned. Their worst nightmare isn't that the guy's going to kill himself on the air, it's that they won't have a clear picture of it but the competition will. No one would have covered OJ's Bronco chase if they knew he was just going to drive home at the end. They stayed with it because they thought he might off himself.

Those news directors and anchors were all shocked and apologetic in the moments after it happened: "We didn't mean for you to see that." But now that the numbers are in -- ratings were up a full two points across the dial during the fiasco -- they're singing a different tune: "We're sorry, now here's a replay." I'll bet that Fox is already working up a TV movie or at least a special: "When Live Shots Go Dead!!"

The brilliant movie "Network" was on some cable channel last week. Watching it again, I couldn't help but wonder at how this figment of Paddy Chayevsky's imagination has become the reality of everyday television.

Thursday, April 30, 1998

A Guy And His Beard

My wife and I went to Toys R Us (sorry, I don't have the correct font for the backwards R) to get some new sand for our daughter's sandbox. They don't keep the sand on the shelves; it's in a stack of 50-pound bags near the exit door. You pay for them at the register and then pick them up. After we did the cash transaction, the woman at the checkout said, "These are kind of heavy. Would you like me to get a guy to help you?" To which my wife replied, "Yes, please." BOOM! Ego shot, broadside.

Honey, what do you mean, "Yes, please"?? We don't need "a guy" to help with this! I'M A GUY! I'm standing right here! What do you think I'm doing here? Besides, what guy in his right mind is going to let another guy pick up that bag of sand and put it in his trunk for him? I picked those suckers up and plopped 'em in the trunk, no problem. Just for the record, "the guy" looked like Izzy Mandelbaum, the octogenarian that Lloyd Bridges played on Seinfeld. No thanks, Izzy, I've got this one. Why don't you have another Viagra, on me? Oh, it's Go Time, all right.

Maybe my wife's just cranky because the Gillette people haven't developed a Lady version of the Mach 3 yet. The Mach 3 is the latest innovation in the race for the perfect shave (c'mon, we're kicking the Russians asses on this one; they're still shaving with Sputnik!), and for the moment it's only for men's beards. It's quite a breakthrough, the Gillette folks would have you believe, because they've been trying to work out the kinks in a three-blade razor for almost three decades. Any minute now I expect them to announce that Tom Hanks is executive-producing a 12-hour miniseries, "From The Chin To The Ear."

What's amazing to me is that they're still trying to improve shaving technology. This is like the people at Nabisco trying to make a better Oreo. Just stop it, you have the perfect cookie. There's no reason to dunk it in fudge and wrap it in white chocolate. Just put them on sale and give me a glass of milk.

Full disclosure: I've had a full beard for more than 20 years, so I can't speak first-hand about getting a close shave, but I didn't realize that the old two-blade system was so primitive. Someone will have to explain to me what the problem was, and how the Mach 3 solves it. Wherever I go, I see and talk to regular guys with clean-shaven faces, and never once has the topic of a closer shave come up in conversation, ever. And yet, Gillette had over 500 engineers working on this project for 27 years. Were there that many complaints about the shortcomings of razors? Was there that much demand for a third blade? Why is this such a technological revolution? Could it be that sales of the Sensor razor were down?

More importantly, when it came time to test the Mach 3 on an actual man's face, did Mrs. Gillette tell the guys in the lab to wait -- while she went to get "a guy"?

Tuesday, April 28, 1998

The Beacon Of Shame

My friend Leigh, who lives in Manhattan, went to see a movie the other night. I wasn't surprised to hear that the movie ("Sour Grapes," from Seinfeld co-creator Larry David) was terrible. I was surprised to hear about the new reserved-seat system they've started using in that theater and some others.

Here's what she had to go through. After coughing up the $8.50 (eight fifty???) for the ticket, she then had to choose where she wanted to sit. The woman behind the bulletproof glass -- who I'm sure insists she's not the Cashier, but rather the Admittance Coordinator -- showed Leigh a seating chart and made her pick a spot. Naturally, she chose a good seat in the middle of the theater. Just as naturally, so did everyone else.

Now, this movie ain't exactly drawing Titanic audiences. So, here you have about three dozen people all scrunched together in a few rows in the center of a mostly-empty theater. They're all in their assigned seats, having been shown where to sit by an usher who no doubt doubles as the kid who replaces the urinal cakes in the men's room. What's wrong with this picture?

What's wrong is that someone ruined a system that worked just fine and needed no improvement. Everyone understood the concept of showing up, paying for your ticket, and then finding a seat on your own; one which fit your own personal seat preferences. You wanted to make sure that you weren't sitting directly next to the guy who was gonna hog the armrest. You didn't want to be behind the woman from the B-52s with the beehive hairdo. You didn't want to be next to the family that brought their soon-to-be-screaming infant to an R-rated Bruce Willis explosion-fest. You may or may not have wanted to sit next to the gaggle of tattooed, nose-ringed, teen arcade chicks.

You wanna sit where you wanna sit, dammit. If you come early, you get the prime seats. If you come late, and the theater's full, you do the "Is that seat taken?" shuffle. And if you find yourself too close to someone, or if the floor at that spot is covered by too much cine-muck, or if you just want to have a place to put your coat down, you can get up and move.

Not anymore. With these reserved seats, once you pick your spot, that's where you have to sit, like it or not. Never mind the 200 empty seats around you. Just sit there, and don't dare eat that popcorn you brought from home.

There is one part of the new system that I find heartening, though, and that's the return of the Usher. If only it was accompanied by the return of The Beacon Of Shame.

There was a time when movie theaters actually employed people to keep order in their theaters. If you were talking too loudly during the movie, or making out with your intern in the balcony, or -- god forbid -- putting your feet up on the chair in front of you, the Usher would appear from nowhere and point a flashlight at you. Mind you, this wasn't just any flashlight. It had approximately the same candlepower as the Bat Signal. When the Usher lit you up, you were bathed in the Beacon Of Shame. Nothing more needed to be said. You were shamed into stopping whatever illicit activity you were involved in. You also missed the next 10 minutes of the movie because you were blinder than Mr. Magoo (which actually would have been helpful if you had found yourself in a theater showing the big screen version of Mr. Magoo, starring Leslie Nielsen...what were they thinking?).

Of course, wielding the Beacon Of Shame is a little more difficult these days. There's more than a small chance that after the Usher whips out the Beacon Of Shame, the offending 70mm-filmgoer is going to whip out a 9mm-usher-stopper. And soon thereafter, that sleeping infant in the reserved seat in front of you is awakened by the sound of gunplay, and then your whole moviegoing experience is ruined.

If only you could have chosen your own seat.

Friday, April 17, 1998

TV Turnoff Week

You've got to feel a little sorry for Stephanie Miller. She's a very talented lady; quick-witted, funny, smart. Sure, her attempt at late night TV had its problems, but none of them were her fault. Besides, she's done dynamite radio for years, and now has stepped up as the latest co-host of CNBC's "Equal Time."

So, why feel sorry for her? Partly because Steph has to suffer the indignity of sitting opposite Bay Buchanan and fight the urge to just plain slap her. Partly because when Bay's not there, they bring in CNBC's designated co-host, Marcia Clark (is there anyone among us who even cares?). But mostly because Steph's gonna get hurt by National TV Turnoff Week, April 22-28.

Face it, nobody's turning off Jerry Springer just because some group wants Americans to boycott TV for a week. I don't care how proud, brilliant, or sophisticated you think you are, or how you claim you only expose yourself to TV when Jim Lehrer is talking to you from behind his desk. If you're down at the Circuit City and the wall of Trinitrons is showing a Springer show with some quadriplegic woman hopping down from her chair, doing a Jackie Chan flip-kick to stump-swat her trailer-park husband for cheating on her with the local manicurist-in-training, you are gonna stop and watch. At least until you hear the crowd chanting, "Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!" and you realize it's your fellow citizens of Circuit City who are leading the cheer.

But give up "Equal Time?" Easy. Not watch Chris Matthews? That's a softball "Hardball" question. Skip another all-star panel of newspaper editors listening to Larry King pining for the old days in Brooklyn? No problem. Believe me, the topic -- and the banter -- will be exactly the same when you come back seven days later.

What's that old question? If William Ginsburg talks to Tim Russert but nobody's watching, can he still limo over to 2020 M Street in time for a one-on-one with Bob Schieffer?

Okay, so you may miss Deepak Chopra explaining the complexities of the federal subpoena process to Bill Maher. Or Bob Novak accidentally agree with Bill Press. But skip a round of the completely interchangeable "McLaughlin Gang" and "Capitol Group?" Sure! It's easier than figuring out which one's Hannity and which one's Colmes.

So, I'm sorry, Stephanie. I hope America sticks with you. I hate seeing those words "Coast To Coast" in the title of your show, because I remember NBC doing that to Tom Snyder when they added Rona Barrett and a studio audience to "Tomorrow," right before it came crashing down harder than a steel beam in Yankee Stadium. I'm rooting for you, Steph. In the same way I'm hoping to be able to turn on a WB sitcom and not hear the word "booty" in the first thirty seconds.

During TV Turnoff Week, if America does hit the off button on its national remote, it won't be Jerry Springer's steel cage match that will suffer, but "Equal Time" and the rest of these shows that will see their ratings fall to minuscule levels. Of course, then they'll just know what it's like to be Tony Snow.

Monday, February 16, 1998

Steve Cropper

Harris: The 20th annual Bartenders Ball takes place this Saturday night at the Convention Center. This is traditionally the biggest bash of the year. The highlight of this year's Bartender Ball is an appearance by the original Blues Brothers band, and joining us on the phone now is a member of that band as well as a man, well, if you look at this man's credits over the years, they're amazing: Booker T and the MG's with that classic Green Onions and he co-wrote Soul Man for Sam and Dave and lots of others. In the Blues Brothers version of Soul Man, you here Belushi yell, "play it, Steve!" Well, this is the "Steve!" This is Steve Cropper. Hi, thanks for coming on with us live from Muscle Shoals, where you're in the middle of a session?

Cropper: You got it.

Harris: I was looking through these credits. Otis Redding's Sitting on the Dock of the Bay, Eddie Floyd's Knock on Wood, Wicked Wilson Pickett's In The Midnight Hour. You co-wrote or worked on most of those. How did you get involved in the Blues Brothers? Belushi was, I know, a big fan of the Stax years and all that stuff you guys had done. Did he invite you personally?

Cropper: Yeah, absolutely. I was in the studio and he called me and said, "Hi, this is John Belushi." And I said, "Yeah, right, and I'm the Pope." His opening statement was, "I heard you and Donald Duck Dunn don't get along?" So that's his introduction to me. I had met him before and he had seen the RCO all-stars play, which is pretty much the same band, same horns and Duck Dunn and myself, and when Levon Helm was doing his solo thing and we played up in New York at a New Year's Eve party and John had seen us. So he kind of said, "I want that band," you know?

Harris: Well, he certainly couldn't have gotten better guys. You guys were right there at the core of all that music that he loved. When you guys would sit down with him and talk about that, was he sitting there wide-eyed as a fan like, "Wow! You guys worked with Wicked Picket?"

Cropper: Yeah. I think so, he was really honored. He wasn't too sure about me, you know, I had long hair and a long beard and all that. He said, "No, that guy is a roadie, he's not Steve Cropper!" So I think Phil Walden set him straight one night in the back of a limo.

Harris: Do you still have that look?

Cropper: No, not quite. I've got a pony tail now. I still got the long hair and I've shortened the beard. I don't look as Amish as I used to.

Harris: Now, the Blues Brothers started out just as a joke because Belushi and Aykroyd were fans of that R&B stuff that you guys had created. So they started like a house band joke on Saturday Night Live, right?

Cropper: Yeah, they used to warm up the crowd with it.

Harris: And then they called you and Duck Dunn and actually put a band together. I want you, if you could, to take me back to that night at the Universal Amphitheater in '78 when you guys were the opening act for Steve Martin and it turned into the Briefcase Full of Blues album. What were you thinking as you were standing backstage that night?

Cropper: Well, it was pretty unbelievable. We were glad to be there and we didn't know what the reaction was gonna be, because people were really there to see Steve Martin. And I really think the story begins the second night because, about an hour before we went on, the audience was shouting "Blues Brothers! Blues Brothers!" We couldn't believe it, just in one night. The word got out. And you can hear that because the Briefcase Full of Blues is the live pieces of the live shows that we did that week.

Harris: Now you won't have the Blues Brothers -- Belushi, Aykroyd, John Goodman obviously won't be here when you're in town Saturday night. Who is the lead singer now?

Cropper: Well, we have Tommy McDonald, who's been with Lou Marini's band up in New York for a long time, and Tommy's been on the road with us now for almost three years, and we also have the great Eddie Floyd.

Harris: Oh, really? Is he gonna do Knock On Wood??

Cropper: He will do Knock On Wood and he will also sing 634-5789, which he does in the movie with Wilson and Eddie, and I also wrote that song for Wilson.

Harris: Who's in the new movie, Blues Brothers 2000? What other musicians? I know James Brown and Aretha come back, right?

Cropper: Oh, my goodness. Well, we have B.B. King, we have Bo Diddley, we have Eric Clapton, we have Travis Tritt, we have Jimmy Vaughan, we have Steve Winwood, we have Dr. John, we have Clarence Clemons.

Harris: I hear the jam at the end is just like one of those dream bands.

Cropper: It's unbelievable. For singers we've got Lou Rawls, we've got Gary US Bands, Koko Taylor, Isaac Hayes, on and on and on, it's amazing!

Harris: Speaking of singers, how is John Goodman as a singer?

Cropper: He's great.

Harris: Yeah?

Cropper: He's just all energy. The guy really loves the music. Highly respects it and works very hard at trying to do the right thing.

Harris: What happened to Jim Belushi along the way? I know the did the Super Bowl last year and there were three Blues Brothers at that gig. What happened to him with Blues Brothers 2000?

Cropper: Well, that's unfortunate. He and the lawyers and the studio just didn't see eye to eye. So he had overlapped the project and we had to start, you know, and I guess he thought we wouldn't start without him, but we had to. We didn't have a choice.

Harris: Gotcha. And what is this I hear about a Blues Brothers cartoon?

Cropper: Well, that's in the works.

Harris: Really?

Cropper: Yep, I hope so.

Harris: You gonna be animated, Steve?

Cropper: Wouldn't that be nice?

Harris: Not that you're not animated on stage. I don't mean it that way.

Cropper: Well, Garry Trudeau put me in the Doonesbury strip many years ago. So I've been a cartoon once, you know. My friends tell me that I'm a cartoon all the time.

Harris: The last thing I want to ask you is, I was looking through the credits knowing you were coming on today. You've worked with all those great R&B singers, plus Rod Stewart and Sammy Hagar and Leon Russell and Neil Young...

Cropper: Wow, you're up on this stuff, aren't you?

Harris: Well, I did my homework.

Cropper: What can I say, I am a very, very lucky guy. I mean, I've had a great career and I still get to do it and get to hang out with all these wonderful people and it's just a blast.

Harris: Is there anybody that you wished you worked with or still want to work with?

Cropper: That's a good question. I'm sure there's several, but the one who always comes to mind is probably Tina Turner. I never got to work with Tina Turner. But I've been on stage with Ike and that's -- I'm half there, you know?

Harris: But the view from the band perspective is much better on Tina isn't it?

Cropper: [laughs] Oh, absolutely!

Harris: Steve, I appreciate you jumping out of your session to come on this afternoon.

Cropper: Okay, Paul. See you soon.

Copyright 1998, Paul Harris.
Transcript by Sean Healey.

Sunday, February 15, 1998

John Pinette

Harris: We welcome to our guest microphone now, comedian John Pinette, who had quite a VIP day today -- you had lunch at the Capitol?

Pinette: Yes, I did.

Harris: As a guest of a major politician. Should we name this major politician?

Pinette: You know, it wasn't a big deal. It was a very nice lunch. There were only three of us there. It was Leader Gephart, Dick Gephart. We actually call him, "Il Duce." No, it was, it was great. I'll tell you, you wonder, is this gonna be an elaborate buffet kind of thing? If you eat too much, do you throw the budget off? You know, you see Clinton up there with the big zero sign and he's crossing it off.

Harris: That's right. Now, this was in the House dinning room?

Pinette: No, this was in his office.

Harris: Catered!

Pinette: It was catered, yes.

Harris: Now, that, my friend, is at the taxpayers' expense!

Pinette: No, it's not. Actually, it's at his expense.

Harris: Really?

Pinette: Absolutely. He sprung for a buffet for me. It was nice.

Harris: What did he serve you? I'm curious.

Pinette: He's a health nut, very healthy.

Harris: Now, I'm looking at you and I'm guessing that you, like me, are not a health nut.

Pinette: I am also a health nut, yes.

Harris: You are a large person, larger than I am, and health and nut...

Pinette: ...don't go together. I love nuts, but that's it. I like to be healthy, but I'm not a nut about it. Call me happy medium Johnny when it comes to health.

Harris: So, what, they bring tofu?

Pinette: No, veggie burgers, which I don't mind. But you gotta eat four or five of them to fill you up. [laughs] I mean, I'm starving here! I got a veggie burger. A veggie burger does not a meal make.

Harris: [laughs] Right.

Pinette: I say nay! Nay! So, a veggie burger and some other stuff, but we were so busy talking I really didn't eat. So now I'm starving. Do you have any Chinese food in here? Do you have any delivery?

Harris: We're ordering in just a minute.

Pinette: Ahhh. I would kill.

Harris: We'll bring the menu in. Is that your favorite, Chinese food?

Pinette: Oh, I love chinese. I can't go to any buffets, I mean they have my picture. Big slash through it. [with chinese accent] "No buffet, buffet not for you. Son of a bitch! You cause trouble, you no come here!" I went to one place that said, "Grand Opening! Chinese Buffet!" I got to the front, the Chinese guy said, "we closed." It says Grand Opening up there, pal. "No, we closed, no buffet here. We dry clean now. You cause trouble." It's not my fault I get hungry! I eat Chinese, I'm there for two-three days.

Harris: [laughs]

Pinette: It is the most economical as far as the buffet goes. You go to a buffet, it's $8.95. You have a plate of food, a plate of food cost you $8.95.

Harris: Exactly.

Pinette: You go twice, a plate of food cost you half that.

Harris: You're down to $4.50 now.

Pinette: I'm paying two, three cents a plate.

Harris: So you're getting real value for your money?

Pinette: Absolutely. It's an economical way to do things. And sometimes they give you cash to leave. "You no have to pay! Just go!" The Vegas buffets are the best. You were just in Vegas?

Harris: I was in Vegas about 6 weeks ago, yes.

Pinette: The Monte Carlo. Now, they don't have a buffet at the Monte Carlo.

Harris: No, they do not. There are other places with the $1.99 all you can eat shrimp and steak buffet.

Pinette: They are cutting them back though. I worked at Sahara, they haven't ask me back surprisingly enough. The breakfast buffet, all you can eat $2.49. I could eat more than $2.49 worth of toast. I was there for an hour, they gave me chips to go back and gamble. Now the MGM is my favorite buffet in the whole world. It really is.

Harris: Why is that?

Pinette: Because its the Oz buffet! The Wizard of Oz is my favorite movie and they made it a buffet. You walk up it's the Emerald City, and it's a buffet! I ran to it! [singing songs from the movie] "You're out of the woods, you're out of the dark, you're out of the night!" "Prime ribs and pork chops and scampi, oh my!" "Are you a good witch or a bad witch? I want a sandwich, get out of my way!"

Harris: Is there any item as you are going across the buffet that you would not eat?

Pinette: Salad. Salad! It horrifies me. Salad give me a nervous tick. You try to like it, because when you diet you have to diet, obviously. I go on diets all the time. And when you diet they put on a lot of salad and that is what makes me snap. I go postal on salad. I can't take it. The first day you eat a salad you go, "Mmm, I'm gonna have a salad, mmm." Then after the second day, the nervous tick starts. You start to go to gun stores. And you try to dress the salad up a little bit, you put a little chicken in there.

Harris: Sure.

Pinette: Maybe some chocolate cake. It's still not good, though.

Harris: No, that's not good for the diet.

Pinette: I lose my cherub-like demeanor on salad, is what I'm telling you.

Harris: Okay, gotcha.

Pinette: The veggies I don't mind.

Harris: Any vegetable?

Pinette: And I love the crab legs. I put them on my chest, I eat like an otter. The management gets a little unnerved, but it's fun to watch people's reactions.

Harris: I'm guessing, John, you've pulled a chair up to the buffet at some restaurants.

Pinette: You know, I'm not saying!

Harris: I did that once at a place where it was all you can eat salad and all you can eat shrimp and they put them right next to each other and not one person lined up for salad. Everybody is lined up for that shrimp bowl and they're refilling it like every forty-five seconds.

Pinette: Well, absolutely. All you can eat shrimp is just craziness.

Harris: You aren't even peeling it at some points.

Pinette: Yeah, exactly. I had an all you can eat shrimp once, it was by the pool. I was paying room service to just hold them up and I was jumping like Free Willy. I'd jump and I'd go under again. I can swim and eat shrimp. That "wait an hour before you go in" thing? Yeah, right. I can wait five minutes.

Harris: John has a new comedy CD called, Show Me the Buffet.

Pinette: No, do it like the Jerry Maguire thing, so it's, SHOW ME THE BUFFET!!

Harris: Hey, who is doing the plugs here?

Pinette: I'm sorry.

Harris: That comes out next month, and he's also nominated for stand-up of the year at the American Comedy Awards.

Pinette: I think my cherub-like demeanor helped me there.

Harris: I think so, too. Are you a classic rock fan?

Pinette: The Beatles are my favorite, but the Stones, too. I'm a big Who fan. You know, from the oldest stuff, My Generation to Quadrophenia. Who's Next is one of my favorites.

Harris: An all-time great album.

Pinette: I actually do Ethel Merman singing Baba O'Riley. You wanna hear this one?

Harris: Let me just turn the microphone down.

Pinette: Yeah, you might want to turn this down. Okay, this is a loud one. [in perfect Ethel Merman loud voice] "OUT HERE IN THE FIELDS! I FOUGHT FOR MY MEALS! I GET MY BACK INTO MY LIVING!"

Harris: [laughs]

Pinette: Ethel Merman sings, "EVER SINCE I WAS A YOUNG BOY, I PLAYED THE SILVER BALL! FROM SOHO DOWN TO BRIGHTON, I MUST HAVE PLAYED THEM ALL! I AIN'T SEEN NOTHING LIKE IT IN ANY AMUSEMENT HALL!"

Harris: [laughs]

Pinette: Ethel Merman sings The Grateful Dead!

Harris: Oh, let's hear that.

Pinette: "LIVING ON REDS, VITAMIN C, AND COCAINE! ALL THE REST CAN SAY IS AIN'T IT A SHAME! TRUCKIN!!"

Harris: Excellent!

Pinette: Thank you!

Harris: Do you do a lot of music in the act?

Pinette: I do a little bit.

Harris: Like what? Give me something else. Can you sing something else or have you shot through the vocal chords?

Pinette: Not at all, not at all. I am in voice.

Harris: All right.

Pinette: Here, let me do The Chipmunks. It's a hard one.

Harris: Do you have to channel David Seville to do this?

Pinette: Yes, exactly, Ross Bagdasarian. All right. The Chipmunks sing The Beatles. [in perfect Chipmunk voices] "Alvin? Simon? Theodore? Close your eyes and I'll kiss you, tomorrow I'll miss you. Remember, I'll always be true. And while I'm away, I'll write home everyday, and I'll send all my loving to you."

Harris: Excellent, excellent!

[a mumbled voice from the back of the room says something, to which John responds]

Pinette: Oh, the Andrew Lloyd Webber thing? Oh, yeah, that's Chipmunk Of The Opera, but you know we're on a classic rock station

[the voice in the back of the room says something inaudibly again]

Harris: John's road manager is shouting out bits. You know, it's funny. We don't take requests on our show, but the comedian does! But only from his own staff, apparently.

Pinette: I do take requests from the audience. Yell it out, I'll do it.

Harris: Here's what I want to hear. Ethel Merman does the Oscar Meyer wiener song.

Pinette: [in perfect loud Merman voice again] "OH I WISH I WERE AN OSCAR MEYER WIENER! THAT IS WHAT I'D TRULY LIKE TO BE! AND IF I WERE AN OSCAR MEYER WIENER! EVERYONE WOULD BE IN LOVE WITH MEEEE!!"

Harris: Excellent, excellent!

Pinette: Somebody give me some oxygen. Somebody called the studio and said my Ethel Merman sounds like Gilbert Gottfried?

Harris: Yeah, somebody did call and say that.

Pinette: What did I do? [now in Gottfried's loud voice] "EVER SINCE I WAS A YOUNG BOY I PLAYED THE SILVER BALL!" I didn't do that.

Harris: You're bringing back flashbacks of when I was doing standup comedy about twenty years ago and I'd go to a place like Catch A Rising Star in New York for open mike night and Gilbert would get up and do 45 minutes and ruin the room for anybody else who got up there.

Pinette: And the back of the room thinks he is brilliant -- which I think he is, I get a kick out him -- but the other people are just horrified.

Harris: And then you bring up the next guy and they're like, "Who are you, and why are you having to following him?"

Pinette: Oh yeah. I've had some times at Catch, man.

Harris: Comedy death.

Pinette: Not fun at all.

Copyright 1998, Paul Harris.
Transcript by Sean Healey.

Friday, January 23, 1998

Will Durst

Harris: Comedian Will Durst is joining us now live from Oakland where he is interrupting a production meeting for his PBS show, Livelyhood. It ran here in Washington at the end of December and he is working on another one for a couple of months from now, but I wanted to get Will on here because earlier this week he was in Green Bay, Wisconsin...Cheesehead City. Hi, Will!

Durst: Hey, how you doing, Mr. Harris? Who are you rooting for on Sunday?

Harris: The Packers. You're originally from Wisconsin, so you kind of have cheese in your blood, right?

Durst: Yeah. I actually think it's green by now.

Harris: What was Green Bay like when you were there? What's the mood of the people? Are they just out of their heads with excitement?

Durst: They're very excited. I am a little frightened. They already think they've won it.

Harris: Really?

Durst: Yeah. There might be a little complacency. I don't know if it has filtered down to the team, but in Green Bay, it's a done deal. You go up there, "All right! Two in row!" Well, you actually do have to win. They don't play it on paper. Oh man, it was like 14 or 15 degrees and they were so excited that we were there. The weather was so beautiful. My crew and I are just looking around at them to see if they're trying to be ironic or anything. It had been 5 below the week before. "Oh, you guys are so lucky you came when it was so nice out here. Oh, geez, look at, isn't that beautiful?" And we're freezing our butts off and they're so happy.

Harris: Now, do people in their everyday life walk around with those stupid cheeseheads on their head?

Durst: No, but we ran into the weirdest thing. We were right on the street and outside the county's Social Services building. It was 3:15 on a Friday afternoon, and suddenly people come pouring out of the building, and they have a pep rally! Right on the street! Right outside! "Honk if you like your Packers!" Everybody is wearing green and gold. The sheriff's car was parked in the middle of the road and using the loudspeakers. They were playing music and chanting, "Go Pack! Go Pack!" The sheriff's car! It is pretty much Fargo in green and gold.

Harris: All right, let's change subjects here, because I know you're having a field day with whatever this Clinton scandal is called now. We were calling it "Intern-Gate" and then a listener called today and said we should call it "Forni-Gate."

Durst: "Forni-gate," yeah. The Mount Vesuvius of bimbo eruptions is what you're saying?

Harris: [laughs] There you go. President Clinton and his 21, now 24-year-old intern, Monica Lewinsky. Your thoughts?

Durst: I tell you, I would not want to live in your town where you got to worry about your best friend wearing a wire at all times. Who is this Tripp woman?

Harris: I don't know, but the moral we've learned from this is don't tell her a secret!

Durst: Boy, I do not want to piss her off. She is to revenge to what Richard Simmons is to short pants. She knows who killed Vince Foster. She has knowledge of two women who have been accused of presidential lechery. You know we should ask her the point spread on the Super Bowl. She is like a Visa commercial, she is everywhere you want to be. And of course in the corner, in the shadows in the corner, we have the dark specter of Al Gore receiving charisma implants.

Harris: [laughs] That's right. Somebody called yesterday and said he is one orgasm away from being president.

Durst: [laughs] We would go from President Woody to President Wood.

Harris: Now, do you think that it could actually get that far? I mean, what's your gut...when you first heard this story did you say, "Well, of course!" or did you say, "Well, hold on a second?"

Durst: Both.

Harris: Really?

Durst: Both, yeah. This is an apocryphal thing. I mean, even if he didn't do it. It's like when Quayle went down to Latin America and supposedly said I wish I studied Latin in high school. But he never said that, but it didn't matter because everybody believed it. It's the same thing here.

Harris: Yeah.

Durst: They had a poll that said 4 out of 10 women would be intimate with the President if they had the chance. Well, it looks like he's determined to get to each and everyone of them, one at a time!

Harris: [laughs] After Paula Jones and Gennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinsky and Larry Lawrence's widow Shelia Lawrence, who has been dragged into this whole thing, one more mistress and Clinton gets a set of steak knives, doesn't he?

Durst: [laughs] You watch the morning news shows and they make Jerry Springer look like Frontline!

Harris: That's what I love about this whole thing. All these people, the Dan Rathers of the world, who stand up and they look down on Jerry Springer. This has now been every newscast for three days straight.

Durst: You gotta feel sorry for the Pope, man.

Harris: The Pope? Why?

Durst: Cause they ditched him in Cuba like rats on fire leaving a sinking oil tanker with grenades strapped to their chests! Every one of them -- Rather, Brokaw, Jennings -- they are all down there and they just zoom private jets back here.

Harris: And Castro's got to be upset, too. He got bumped right off. I tell you, here in town, the one person who was happy about this was Chris Webber of the Wizards. No one remembers his drug bust. It was Tuesday!

Durst: Oh and Kaczynski. Nobody cares. Now, did the president really make a distinction between oral sex and adultery?

Harris: Well, that's the question when he says there was nothing improper. You know, here's a guy who may not know what improper means, and he says I didn't have a sexual relationship. Dave said he had to go to the dictionary and look up "relationship" again. I mean, we don't know exactly what he means by that do we?

Durst: No. It is supposedly on the wire tap tapes that he says that he doesn't believe oral sex is adultery. And I think he can get every married man in America to go with him on that. "Honey, the President said!"

Harris: I don't know about you, but a week ago you could have bet me that we would never have a Presidential scandal involving "deep throat" again. I thought we left that behind us.

Durst: [laughs] I thought so.

Harris: Will, thanks for coming on today, I appreciate it. Always great to have you on the show.

Durst: Hey, you and Dave take it easy, and Go Pack!

Harris: When will that Livelyhood be airing, sometime in the spring?

Durst: Yeah, it will be like in the last weekend in May.

Harris: Cool, we'll have you back on before then.

Durst: Thanks, buddy!

Copyright 1998, Paul Harris
Transcript by Sean Healey

Monday, January 05, 1998

Bob Newhart

Harris: We have comedians on this show all the time. Dozens of them, hundreds of them, have appeared on our show over the years. Very few, however, could have the title Comedy Legend added to their introduction. This man certainly deserves that. Ladies and gentlemen, here is Comedy Legend Bob Newhart, live from Los Angeles. Hi, Bob!

Newhart: H-h-hi. Thank you!

Harris: You're very welcome. There's that recognizable Bob Newhart voice and stammer. I love it. Bob, when you were first starting out in this business it was very unlike nowadays when a comedian comes out, does a stand-up act up on TV for one shot, goes and works clubs for 20 minutes, and then they give him a sitcom. That was not the case when you started out. How did you get your first TV show, which I think was 1961, wasn't it?

Newhart: My first show was, yeah, 1961. That was based on the success of the record album. I did a comedy record album and NBC approached me. I had been approached to do a game show by Mark Goodson. I didn't think it was a good idea and NBC ask me if I wanted to do a variety show and they put me together with some writers. And we won an Emmy, a Peabody, and a pink slip from NBC all in the same year.

Harris: And then it was a decade or so before you got back together with another TV show, the legendary Bob Newhart Show. And now, is your grandchild able to watch you on Nick at Night?

Newhart: She was just down here and she gets very confused. My daughter tells me that she watches Nick at Night, but she only laughs when I say something.

Harris: Well, good! That's good family training then.

Newhart: Everybody else could have the funniest lines in the world, but she only laughs at my jokes. She's a little confused, because I'll notice. We put on a tape the other day just to see her expression. She kept looking at the box and looking at me. So yeah, it's great.

Harris: It must also be very odd for you. You've got kind of a renaissance here. You've got your own primetime show with Judd Hirsch, George and Leo, which is saving Monday nights on CBS, frankly. And at the same time you've got this renaissance with a whole new audience through Nick at Night. Dave and I grew up watching you on that Saturday blockbuster line-up, but how is that for you at age 67 to have that renaissance happening?

Newhart: Sixty-eight.

Harris: Sorry!

Newhart: I took a year off. Well it's, yes, a great feeling and secondly it's not just me. We have some pretty good writers and some pretty good co-stars, you know. We had a great cast on The Bob Newhart Show. It really starts with the writing and the fact that it is finding a new audience is a tribute to the writing as much as anything else.

Harris: Every show you've ever been on has been well written. Do you have a say in who writes the show?

Newhart: Well, you sit down with them and see if there is a chemistry and see what direction they see the show going and who they see me as. On the first show, The Bob Newhart Show, one of the conditions I made was that we don't have children and that I be a psychologist rather than a psychiatrist. The reason being that a I know a psychiatrist would deal more seriously with people. I didn't want to be making fun of really serious people.

Harris: Right.

Newhart: I didn't want to have children because I didn't want to be the dumb husband/father who keeps getting in trouble and then the precocious children bail him out at the last minute.

Harris: Which is the plot of every major sitcom on television today, by the way.

Newhart: Exactly! So, in the sixth year of The Bob Newhart Show, I got a script to come home with on Friday night. I was reading it Sunday afternoon and noticed that it said that Emily was pregnant. So I called the producer. I said, "I read the script." He said, "Oh, what did you think of it?" I said, "Oh, it's a very funny story. It is great." He said, "We were a little concerned, you know." I said, "It was very funny. [pause] Who are you going to get to play Bob??"

Harris: [laughs] So what did you end up doing?

Newhart: Well, if you ever see it, it's a dream sequence where Emily dreams she is pregnant. That is how we solved it.

Harris: Gotcha. Speaking of dream sequences and Emily, one of the greatest final episodes in TV history was the finale of Newhart, where it turned out all to be a dream and you wake up in bed with Suzanne Pleshette and got a giant sustained laugh that went on for minutes. Just huge. Now, of course, Seinfeld is coming to a finale. Do you think you'll call Jerry and suggest the Suzanne Pleshette ending to him? Maybe you can do a cameo or something?

Newhart: [laughs] I haven't heard from Jerry. We could wake up in bed, Emily and I, with the Seinfeld cast!

Harris: Or, you wake up in bed with Kramer! Forget about George and Leo. It's Bob and Cosmo!!

Newhart: [laughs]

Harris: Is that hard, by the way? To end a show that is so successful? You've had this with both of your previous shows. To have a show that is so succesful and say, "Look, that is it. We're stopping here."

Newhart: Yeah, it is hard because so many people are dependent on you. And it's hard because they are your second family.

Harris: But why did you decide to stop doing the original Bob Newhart Show?

Newhart: I just thought it was time. I felt, I didn't know if there was another year of stories left in it. I felt we were running a little thin on story lines and I always wanted to go out a year or two early, rather than a year or two late.

Harris: So the timing was right. As a comedian, you have that sense of timing and that is exactly what Jerry Seinfeld talks about in Time magazine. You just know it is time to go off, leave them wanting more?

Newhart: Yeah, there is a little man on your shoulders and he has been on my shoulders for 37 years now and he has been right. There are shows, I think, that stayed too long. No reflections on it, but I think Who's The Boss may have stayed on a year or two too long.

Harris: People have talked about Cheers and M*A*S*H having the same problem.

Newhart: Well, I don't know that I can say that about Cheers. I think maybe the Alan Thicke show [Growing Pains] may have stayed on a year or two too long. I mean, it's painful to watch shows that were good, kind of struggling.

Harris: Right.

Newhart: I never wanted to be in that position.

Harris: How long do you think George and Leo is going to be on?

Newhart: That is really hard to say. It is up to the public, as long as they want you on. They are the ultimate arbiters of what stays on and what goes off.

Harris: The man just doesn't want anymore pink slips, is what he is saying.

Newhart: Right.

Harris: A listener wanted me to ask you whether any of those old comedy albums of yours are going to come out on CD?

Newhart: We are in the process of trying to work something out with Blockbuster. There is a video of a standup concert I did a few years back, and there is an anthology CD of a lot of the routines from the first and second albums, only performed in front of a live audience.

Harris: I saw that tour. I think it was at Wolftrap. You came through here and did all that just brilliant stuff. And like the Nick at Night renaissance, I think a lot more people would re-discover it if it were re-released. Because Button Down Mind, which was the first million-selling comedy album, is almost a benchmark in comedy.

Newhart: Well, thank you!

Harris: You're very welcome. Bob, thank you for joining us.

Newhart: Well, thank you, guys!

Harris: George and Leo has moved to 9pm Mondays. It's the cornerstone of the Monday line up -- basically saving the CBS Monday night line up, if you don't mind my saying so.

Newhart: I don't!

Copyright 1998, Paul Harris.
Transcript by Sean Healey.