If you like trivia, check out my other site, THE HARRIS CHALLENGE, and play every weekday!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Death Of A Poker Player

My friend Mike died over the weekend after another battle with cancer.

I knew him through poker games he ran at his house, which were always fun and filled with a group of nice people. Mike didn't take a rake from each pot, only asking each of us to pay $20 at the start of the session to cover the food and drinks (often including dinner). You don't find many home games run that generously.

The first time I played, the group of regulars in the game had already been meeting every Friday for several years. I was glad to be included, but didn't think I'd be invited back after beating Mike for all of his chips twice in the session (in his own living room). Mike wasn't happy, of course, but he didn't hesitate to invite me back the next week. He wasn't in it for the money. He ran the game because he wanted to play poker with his friends -- and we did, for several years.

Mike's funeral was yesterday, and all the poker players were there along with his large family, business associates, and friends. There was an open casket, which revealed Mike holding two cards face-down and a red $5 poker chip that had been lost since he'd opened a brand new personalized set of chips he bought for his very first home game. It wasn't until after he died that his wife, Maureen, found the chip. She decided it should remain missing from the set forever by being buried with Mike.

After the memorial service at the funeral home, we all went to the cemetery, where a military honor guard was waiting to salute Mike for his Army service, including two years in Vietnam. In addition to the three-man guard in their dress uniforms attending the casket, there were also members of the VFW on hand to fire three ceremonial shots. And next to them was a young soldier, also in dress uniform, holding a bugle.

The Pentagon has a severe shortage of buglers, and especially during the dozen years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of soldiers -- and veterans -- dying has been too large for the bugle corps to cover every funeral. After the shots were fired, I noticed the soldier reach into the bell of the bugle and flick a switch. Then he held the mouthpiece to his lips while a recorded "Taps" played from a speaker inside the horn. The soldier made no attempt to pretend he was playing it -- his cheeks didn't go all Dizzy Gillespie -- and his breathing didn't change as it would if he were performing. When the recording ended, he lowered the bugle, reached into the bell to turn the switch off, and returned to standing at attention.

Next, the sergeant in charge and one of his corporals lifted the flag off Mike's casket and crisply folded it into a triangle before presenting it to Maureen, as the sergeant told her, "On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Army, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one's honorable and faithful service."

With that, the ceremony was over and we dispersed back to our cars. I asked several other attendees if they'd noticed that the bugler wasn't playing, but they hadn't. I'm sure Maureen and the rest of Mike's grief-stricken family didn't, either, nor do I think it would have -- or should have -- mattered. Having a "live" bugler wouldn't have changed a thing. The gesture and the ceremonial honors sufficed.

We poker players decided to honor Mike in our own way. We each made a small donation to his grandkids' college fund, and then we went to the house of one of the other players and started a game in his memory, telling jokes, making fun of each other, eating unhealthy food, and sharing stories about him.

We're pretty sure that's what Mike would have wanted. And it's a good thing it wasn't recorded.

In Case You Missed It

From my Twitter feed...

  • Today was the annual celebration of Americans unable to reach the Butterball Hotline because morning DJs were calling with wacky pranks.
  • The nip slip on the NY Times front page isn't quite as big a deal as Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction. It's more like Elaine's xmas card on Seinfeld.
  • My brother Seth's blog about ongoing labor rights dialogue in the Americas and Caribbean following trips to Colombia and Mexico.
  • Skeptic magazine has finally made Dave Reitzes' JFK conspiracy-debunking masterpiece free to read.
  • This is probably not a good time to pick up Alec Baldwin and Lara Logan for my TV fantasy league team.

Numbers Matter

My car passed the 20,000 milestone yesterday, and I happened to look down at the odometer in time to see it change from 19,999. In the days of analog odometers, it was always fun to watch the digits roll over to the next round number, with a faintly audible click in the background. One thousand was okay, each ten thousand was cool, and when they hit 100,000, that was the coolest -- watching five nines flip over to zeroes and seeing the 1 appear. I've never driven a car long enough to see 200,000, let alone a million, but as I recall most of my early vehicles didn't have room for a seventh digit.

Now, on digital dashboards, that fleeting moment is not nearly as much fun. The change from 19,999 to 20,000 was no different than the change from 20,000 to 20,001. Yawn.

On the other hand, I was happy watching the guy at the gas station lowering the price sign from $3.15/gallon to $2.99/gallon as I pulled up to the pump today.

Outsourcing America

Did you know there's an education administrator who gets $19 million from taxpayers like you? That's the big reveal in my America Weekend conversation with Brendan Fischer of the Center For Media And Democracy, which has issued a report on the highest-paid government workers in the US.

There are no actual teachers on that list, nor nurses, nor cops, nor firefighters, nor any of the public-sector workers who have come under attack in the last few years, with their right to collective bargaining restricted in states like Wisconsin, their promised pensions whittled away by states under economic pressure, etc. To the contrary, these high-income earners are the CEOs of companies that our public sector jobs have been outsourced to. I don't begrudge anyone the opportunity to get a big paycheck, but when it comes out of taxpayers dollars, extra scrutiny must be applied. In the case of this CEO, his online education company is paid huge sums of money -- and doesn't get the job done!

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

Monday, November 25, 2013

What The Hell Is Wrong With People?

I ask that question on a daily basis while trolling for stories to talk about on my radio shows. Here are four examples from the past week...

A 25-year-old woman who grew up near St. Louis says she's going to marry Charles Manson. She's a big fan of the 79-year-old convicted killer, and has even shaved her head and carved an X into her forehead to make herself a perfect match for him. Here's the best part of the story -- Manson says the marriage talk is "a bunch of garbage." In other words, she's being called crazy by Charles Manson.

A Hawaii state legislator had to be convinced to stop going around smashing homeless people's belongings with a sledgehammer. This is the same state that wants to pay $100,000 to fly homeless people off the islands.

There's a video game where players follow Adam Lanza's footsteps as he killed 26 kids and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut.

Earl Sampson has been stopped by cops outside a convenience store 258 times in the last four years, and arrested 62 times for trespassing -- even though the guy who owns the store has repeatedly told officer that Earl works there.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The War On Thanksgiving

You hear a lot at this time of the year about the made-up War On Christmas, but we don't hear nearly as much about the very real War On Thanksgiving. Yes, there is a War On Thanksgiving, and it's our biggest retailers who are waging it in an effort to squeeze out every extra day of selling you stuff for Christmas that they possibly can.

It used to be that Black Friday would start when stores opened at their usual time on Friday morning. Then it moved back to 4am, then 2am, then midnight, then Thanksgiving night. Now, this year, K-Mart is going to open at 6am Thanksgiving morning and stay open for 2 straight days. Other retailers will be open all day, too, including Target, WalMart, and Macy's.

Why do I call this a War On Thanksgiving? Because on this truly American holiday we should be celebrating -- regardless of race, creed, or religion -- with our families. But the people who have to work on Thanksgiving in those retail outlets don't get to celebrate the holiday and a day of rest with their families, because they have to help their corporate uberlords pry every possible dollar from you, the consumer.

Mike Foley is an Ohio state legislator who detests this trend, too, so I invited him to join me on America Weekend to discuss the law he's trying to get passed which would discourage retailers from forcing people to work on Thanksgiving.

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

Martha Plimpton, Raising Hope

Here's my America Weekend conversation with Martha Plimpton, who stars on the Friday night Fox series, “Raising Hope,” which just began its fouth season. She’s been nominated for an Emmy for playing Hope’s grandmother, Virginia Chance. She was also Emmy-nominated for a guest role on “Law and Order SVU,” won an Emmy for her guest role as Patti Nyholm on “The Good Wife," was nominated for three consecutive Tony Awards, and has appeared in several dozen movies in her career, too.

I first noticed Plimpton 25 years ago when she played River Phoenix’s girlfriend in “Running On Empty” (with Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti, directed by Sidney Lumet). We talked about that experience, as well as her guest appearances on "The Good Wife," whether she prefers TV over movies, whether Cloris Leachman is as much of a handful on "Raising Hope" as she was on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," and how intense the set was when she worked with Robert DeNiro and Jane Fonda on "Stanley and Iris."

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

Redefining Prostate Cancer

One of the things most men don’t look forward to during a physical is the prostate exam. The doctor puts on a glove, you bend over, he reaches in, and tells you what he feels. Then he does a PSA blood test and gives you a number. But how accurate is all of that in finding a problem and in diagnosing prostate cancer? It’s the most common type of cancer diagnosed in men, but the majority of us don’t know anything about it.

Here to discuss it on my America Weekend show is Dr. Steven Lamm, director of the Men’s Health Center at NYU Medical Center and author of the new book, “Redefining Prostate Cancer.” Among my questions:

  • Isn't there a better way to check my prostate than a doctor’s finger in a glove?
  • A couple of years ago, we were told that PSA tests were doing more harm than good, and we shouldn't rely on them so much. Why?
  • Are a lot of men walking around with prostate cancer and don’t know it? How dangerous is prostate cancer?
  • Why don’t I ever hear of a guy in his twenties getting prostate cancer?
  • Is prostate cancer genetic?
Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Satellite High School

Students at Thomas Jefferson High School in Alexandria, Virginia, have become the first high schoolers to put a satellite into space. They did it under the auspices of teacher Adam Kemp, who joined me today on America Weekend to explain the project, which he's worked on for almost 8 years. TJHS is a magnet school for students studying science and technology.

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

Knuckleheads In The News® 11/24/13

Today's Knuckleheads In The News® include a boy's beaver problem, a potentially explosive burrito, and love on a hillside. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Goodbye Sylvia Browne

I was going to write something about the death of the evil Sylvia Browne, who has been the subject of so many posts here over the last decade. But a few minutes ago, I watched this video by Rebecca Watson (of SkepChick), who hits the exact points I was going to make about Browne's legacy of preying on the emotionally vulnerable with a lifetime of inaccurate predictions...

Jim Henson, Muppet-Master

On my America Weekend show, I enjoyed talking with Brian Jay Jones, who has written an authorized biography of Jim Henson, the man behind the Muppets. Among the topics we covered:
  • how "The Muppet Show" worked on different levels for kids and adults;
  • why the Muppets didn't interact with the humans in early episodes of "Sesame Street";
  • the turmoil of the year the Muppets spent on "Saturday Night Live";
  • how Kermit rode a bicycle in the original "Muppet Movie";
  • was there really a group of Muppet groupies;
  • whether Henson eschewed real medicine, thus exacerbating his death in 1990.
Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

When Black Friday Comes

You won't catch me in a store on Black Friday (or most other days of the year), but if you're going to hit a retail outlet on the day after Thanksgiving in search of big bargains, you should first listen to my conversation with Mark LoCastro of Deal News. He explains why you shouldn't buy certain items during the Black Friday crush, why you don't even have to go to the stores this year to get the deals, and what is really the best time to buy toys.

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

The Other Side Of The Security Facade

You go to the airport to catch a flight, but before being allowed to proceed to your gate, you have to wade through the TSA security checkpoint, where you have to take off your shoes and belt, throw away your bottles of liquid over 3.5 ounces, prove to the screeners that you're not carrying anything dangerous, reveal yourself inside a backscatter x-ray machine, and run the risk of being felt up by a government agent.

But once you get past the checkpoint, could you buy the ingredients for a bomb or other device at the terminal's stores, restaurants, and newsstands? Evan Booth thought you could, and set out to prove it by devising several weapons using only the items available for purchase on the other side of the security facade.

I thought it was a fascinating experiment, so I invited him to discuss his Terminal Cornucopia on my America Weekend show. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!
On Terminal Cornucopia, you can see video of Evan constructing lethal weapons from common items sold in airports after the security checkpoint.

John C. McGinley On The Ground Floor

You may know John C. McGinley from his decade as Dr. Perry Cox on the TV show “Scrubs,” or you may have seen him as Dodgers announcer Red Barber earlier this year in the Jackie Robinson movie, “42.” Now he’s starring in a new sitcom that airs Thursday nights on TBS called “Ground Floor," and joined me on America Weekend to talk about it. We discussed:
  • how he got in on the, um, ground floor of the new series;
  • what it was like working with Al Pacino in the Broadway revival of "Glengarry Glen Ross";
  • whether he studied tapes of the real Red Barber in order to play him in "42";
  • working with Eric Bogosian and Oliver Stone on the movie version of "Talk Radio."
Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Knuckleheads In The News® 11/23/13

Today's Knuckleheads In The News® include a bacon-scented deodorant, a thief who doesn't understand ankle monitors, and a poorly installed air vent. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Harris Challenge 11/22/13

This week's Harris Challenge includes the categories "Could Be J, Could Be F, Could Be K," "Musicians Who Died Too Young," and "Have You Been Paying Attention?" Listen and play along, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Like A Rolling Remote

The must-see item of the day is by an Israeli viral video artist name Vania Heyman, and the concept is simple: you're watching TV, and on every channel, the characters are mouthing the words to Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone." While watching, you can change the channels anytime you like, to sample "The Price Is Right" or "Sportscenter" or "Maron" or a dozen others. As explained here, some of them are real and some are not, but no matter where you go, they're all lip-syncing Dylan.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Astronaut Chris Hadfield on "60 Minutes"

I can't embed the video as Picture Of The Day, but I enjoyed this piece on astronaut Chris Hadfield from the Australian version of "60 Minutes." Hadfield is the one who became world-famous for his videos in space, including his version of David Bowie's "Space Oddity." He's both a great teacher and spokesman for human exploration of space, and I'm looking forward to reading his book, "An Astronaut's Guide To Live On Earth."

One note: on the TV show, the reporter says Hadfield remembers watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin step onto the moon's surface on July 21, 1969. While that was the date in Australia because of the time zone difference, Hadfield and all the rest of us in North America watched that historic moment late on the night of July 20, 1969.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Monty Python Returns

Monty Python fans are cheering the impending announcement that the five surviving members of the group are going to reunite for a stage show. I am not one of them.

Yes, I'm a Monty Python fan, but no, I don't want to see them reunite. John Cleese, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, and Michael Palin are now all in their seventies. They created hours and hours of great comedy, but the "Flying Circus" ended in 1973. They made their last movie together in 1984. We don't need to get them re-hashing their classic skits on stage again when we can see any of those shows and movies (with the group in its prime) any time we like, on demand. I have no desire to see them as septuagenarians doing The Parrot Sketch.

If, on the other hand, the Python reunion is going to consist of entirely new material, that's not necessarily something to cheer, either. We have no evidence to suggest that it will live up to their prior high standards. While each has had post-Python success, none of them has done anything particularly funny recently -- other than "Spamalot," which is simply a clever re-purposing of previous Python material with new songs. Don't get me wrong, I loved "Spamalot," but it wasn't a new-from-scratch concept.

Here's something else that makes me leery, from the mouth of Python member Terry Jones:
I'm quite excited about it. I hope it makes us a lot of money. I hope to be able to pay off my mortgage!
He may be joking, but I fear that the reunion is about nothing more than a Python payday. Which makes me sadder than a cheese shop that has no cheese.

A Prediction

It won't be much longer before someone in Florida stands their ground against George Zimmerman.

You Can Never Tell With Bruce

At the end of his concerts, Bruce Springsteen takes requests from the audience. The crowd brings signs with the names of songs he doesn't perform often or hasn't done that night. Bruce picks through the suggestions, tells his crew what he wants to do, and then they race to find the lyrics online and put them on a teleprompter at his feet (though it looks like his eyes are closed as he sings, he's actually looking down to be sure he's singing the right words, even if it's one of his songs). Sometimes it leads to something special (e.g. after The Band's Levon Helm died, he performed "The Weight") or simply spontaneous and fun.

At a concert this summer, someone requested "You Can Never Tell," a Chuck Berry song that you may remember John Travolta and Uma Thurman dancing to in "Pulp Fiction." The E Street Band hasn't performed the song in a very long time, so Bruce and Steve Van Zandt had to agree in which key they'd play it, and then the other musicians had to scramble to figure it out and keep up. It's not an especially complex song, but most of the horn section seemed not to recognize it (at least by name), so Bruce walked them through it and they worked it out -- all in front of the crowd.

While watching this, I was reminded of a story Springsteen told in "Hail Hail Rock and Roll," the movie directed by Taylor Hackford about Chuck Berry's 60th birthday concert at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis. In it, Chuck reminisced about his career, and others who were influenced by him shared stories, too. In one scene, Springsteen remembered a time long before he was famous when Chuck was going to play a gig in New Jersey and needed a backup band. The promoter hired a very excited Springsteen et al, who showed up early to rehearse -- but Berry didn't. Instead, as was his habit, he drove up a few minutes before showtime, got paid in advance by the promoter (in cash), then headed for the stage.

As Berry pulled his guitar out of his case, Bruce introduced himself and the band, said no one had given them a set list, and asked "What songs are we playing tonight?" Berry answered "We're playing Chuck Berry songs, son," and tore into the opening riffs of "Johnny B. Goode" as Bruce and the band hustled to keep up.

Here's the modern-day version of Bruce leading the band in a Chuck Berry song...

Monday, November 18, 2013

Inside the Costa Concordia

In my conversation yesterday with Dean and Georgia Ananias, survivors of the Costa Concordia disaster, I mentioned seeing a TV show that consisted predominantly of video shot by passengers and crew on and around the cruise ship. It's called "Sinking Of The Concordia: Caught On Camera," which aired on British television three months after the sinking. The show runs 47 minutes and offers compelling evidence of what it was like during the crisis. In watching this, you may become as angry as the Italian Coast Guard officer who ends up screaming at the Concordia's captain, who apparently never heard of going down with his ship, since he abandoned it without regard for the safety of his passengers...

Don't Come To Dallas, Mr. President

Three-and-a-half weeks before JFK's assassination, a woman in Dallas begged his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, not to let the President visit the city because it was a hotbed of right-wing extremism...

Slate's Rebecca Onion provides the background story and the response from the White House.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Death With Dignity

Dealing with end of life issues is always tough, but if the medical community were more open and honest with patients and families, better decisions could be made all around. That's the view of Dr. Jessica Nutik Zitter, who joined me on America Weekend to talk about her battles with colleagues over letting people die with dignity instead of having their lives prolonged by machinery and medicine. I asked her about the conflict between relieving a patient's pain and letting them die, whether the expense of medical care factors into the relationship between doctor and patient, how difficult it is logistically to tell patients the truth, and how often she hears from families that a patient "wouldn't want to be kept alive like this."

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

Dr. Jessica Nutik Zitter is an attending physician at Alameda County Medical Center in Oakland, California, and author of a NY Times piece, "They Call Me Dr. Kevorkian," and a column for the San Francisco Chronice, "We've Lost The Age-Old Ability To Help People Die."

Two JFK Assassination Experts

With the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination a few days away, I invited two experts to discuss it on my America Weekend show, and have combined them in a double-length podcast of about 20 minutes.

First up is John McAdams, an associate professor at Marquette University who participated in last week's PBS Nova special, "Cold Case JFK," and author of "JFK Assassination Logic: How to Think About Claims of Conspiracy." I asked him what he learned from that show, what errors in logic conspiracy theorists make, how harmful to the truth some TV shows and movies have been, and what this case tells us about the reliability of eyewitness testimony. He also explained who Jack Ruby was and how he killed Lee Harvey Oswald.

Second, you'll hear Dave Reitzes, who maintains JFK-Online.com, and author of a recent cover story in Skeptic magazine, "JFK Conspiracy Theories at 50: How The Skeptics Got it Wrong and What Matters." I asked him what they got wrong, how law enforcement caught Oswald so quickly, and whether he's annoyed that Oliver Stone’s being honored at the St. Louis International Film Festival with a showing of his “JFK” movie (which Dave debunks in detail on his site).

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

Survivors of the Costa Concordia

Dean and Georgia Ananias and their two daughters were on board the Costa Concordia cruise ship on January 13, 2012, when it struck some rocks off the coast of Italy, began listing, and eventually ended up on its side. On my America Weekend show today, they talked about that horrific experience, in which they were among the last passengers to get off the boat. We talked about what it was like to think they were about to die, how the captain and officers abandoned the ship without making sure the passengers were safe, how they managed to finally get out, and what it would take to get them back on a cruise ship. They have written about their adventure in "SOS: Secrets of Survival."

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

Scott Turow, "Identical"

Scott Turow is back with another legal thriller, "Identical," and was on my America Weekend show to talk about it. He explained his inspiration for the plot, which characters are hardest for him to write, and whether he fictionalizes pieces of the cases he handles in his real-life law practice for his books. We also talked about his musical career as a member of the Rock Bottom Remainders, and his work to eliminate capital punishment in Illinois and other states.

Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!
Previously on Harris Online...

Knuckleheads In The News® 11/17/13

Today's Knuckleheads In The News® include a guy giving his ex-wife the finger, a college student in handcuffs, and a fake landlady. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Why JFK Conspiracy Theories Still Plague Us

For 50 years, conspiracy theorists have gone crazy over the assassination of President John Kennedy. In his new book, "A Cruel and Shocking Act," investigative reporter Philip Shenon not only debunks all those theories with the facts of what happened that afternoon in Dealey Plaza, but also lays blame at the feet of the politicians and other authorities who made mistakes that allowed the theories to flourish.

On my America Weekend show, Shenon revealed:
  • how FBI evidence of Oswald's intentions before the murder was ignored and then disappeared;
  • why J. Edgar Hoover's successor concluded the president's death could have been prevented;
  • why the original report describing the autopsy of JFK's body was destroyed;
  • the names of 4 men -- including RFK -- Shenon blames for conspiracy theories plaguing us to this day.
Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

College Athletes vs The NCAA

You're a star athlete whose team reaps millions of dollars in merchandise and ticket sales from your performance. Video game companies put you in their software and on their box covers. With all of that money being made from your image, you must be getting a nice piece of the action, right? Wrong, if you're a college athlete. Which is why there's a class action suit against the NCAA, led by former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon on behalf of tens of thousands of "student athletes."

On my America Weekend show, I talked about the case with sportswriter Jon Solomon of the Birmingham News, who explained why a judge's recent ruling is allowing the suit to proceed, but with some limitations. I also asked him about the impact this will have on big time college sports programs, whether all players will get a piece or just the big names, and whether the largest source of revenue -- TV contracts -- are in play, too.

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

What The Jailbird Doesn't Want You To Know

Kevin Trudeau is in jail, finally, and possibly for a long time. You might recognize his face from years of TV infomercials in which he sold weight-loss diets, financial advice, and books about all sorts of things he claimed "they" don't want you to know about. He was as slick a pitchman as they come, but the Federal Trade Commission clamped down on him because his claims were bogus, and fined him $37 million. He wouldn't pay, and this week, was jailed on a contempt of court charge.

I talked this over with Sharon Hill, editor/publisher of Doubtful News, who has been covering the Trudeau case. She explained how he got into trouble, how his supporters/victims still believe he's done nothing wrong, and why the government still can't get his money.

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

Knuckleheads In The News® 11/16/13

Today's Knuckleheads In The News® include a lonely drunk, a burglary victim's letter to the thieves, and 911 audio of a guy complaining about a snoring woman in his bed. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Harris Challenge 11/15/13

This week's Harris Challenge includes the categories "Mmmm, Chocolate," "Land That I Love," and "A Palette Full of Questions." Listen and play along, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Not Andy Kaufman Again

With Andy Kaufman's name back in the news thanks to his brother trying to convince people he didn't die of cancer in 1984 but is actually still around and has a 24-year-old daughter (a dumb stunt not even up to the level of lameness Kaufman perpetrated throughout his career), I thought it time to re-publish this column that I wrote on December 19, 2000, entitled "Andy Kaufman, Over-Indulged Nut"...

In case you haven’t noticed, the media has pronounced this Andy Kaufman Month. They’re all caught up in the hype of “Man On The Moon,” the movie starring Jim Carrey as Kaufman which opens this week, and the two bios of him which have been published within the last month.

Show business is well-known for its lack of perspective, particularly on stardom. Yet even by its own ridiculous standards, the plaudits for Andy Kaufman are beyond all reason. They include phrases like “changed the face of comedy forever,” “splendidly surreal,” and the used-so-often-it’s-now-completely-deflated “comedy genius.”

Rarely does anyone refer to Andy Kaufman as what he truly was: a nutcase who was over-indulged by Hollywood and the rest of show business. It is precisely that over-indulgence which I find most amazing.

Don’t get me wrong. I thought some of what he did was amusing. I smiled at the Mighty Mouse bit. I smirked at the Foreign-Man-Becomes-Elvis impersonation. They were not hysterical nor the most ground-breaking comedy I’ve ever seen. But if you listen to the praise being heaped on Kaufman now, you’d think that he was the most fantastic entertainer to ever live. He wasn’t that, but he was certainly among the most coddled and spoiled.

Selective memory is an amazing thing. The cast of “Taxi,” on which he played Latka Gravas, unanimously hated him. Yet they all appear in the movie and have recently been quoted saying wondrous things about him. One of the producers marvels at how, in the show’s first season and with no previous sitcom experience, Andy never forgot his lines. What the producer seems to have forgotten is that in the first dozen shows or so, Latka spoke in his own gibberish language that Kaufman had made up! He could have said anything and it would have fit, and no one would have known if he flubbed a line.

What Danny DeVito, Tony Danza, Marilu Henner, and Judd Hirsch aren’t saying now is that, when they were doing “Taxi,” he drove them crazy by showing up late to the set or not showing up at all and getting special treatment from the producers. Kaufman was treated like the star of the show, even though it really revolved around Hirsch’s character. Still, the producers coddled him. At one point, Jeff Conaway became so upset with the way he abused his privileges and was never punished, that he got fed up and went after Kaufman with his fists. Naturally, Conaway was perceived to be the bad guy, because Andy could do no wrong.

The producers even agreed to a contract clause which guaranteed that Kaufman’s obnoxious alter-ego, lounge singer Tony Clifton, be featured in a couple of “Taxi” episodes -- a professional arrangement that ended in an on-stage fight culminating with his physical removal from the studio. What other performer would be allowed to continue that kind of nonsense?

In the later seasons, they indulged him even more by allowing Latka to develop a schizoid personality that turned him into other people. Talk about typecasting. These were at the time universally considered to be the lamest episodes the show ever produced. But now, with myopic hindsight, there’s nothing but praise for them.

Kaufman is considered “ground-breaking” because he thought it was more entertaining to go onstage at a comedy club and not be funny. You can see dozens of people doing that regularly at open mike nights across the country. But because he somehow had been knighted as Comedy’s Golden Boy, it was different?

What is entertaining about a guy getting onstage, announcing that he has a growth on the back of his neck, and then letting the audience come up and touch it? The audience, who would have licked his boots if he had asked them, came up one by one and played along. When they were all done, he said thank you and left the stage. You think I’m making that up? Kaufman did that as his entire act on a televised special, and was hailed for it with comments like, “Only Andy Kaufman would have the guts to try something so daring!”. In reality, if any other shlub had done it, he would have been shown the door and never invited back. That’s what I mean by over-indulged.

Here’s another example.

For some reason, Kaufman thought it cool to take a job as a busboy at a Hollywood deli that was frequented by the stars. He did the job just as any busboy would, anonymously. But he couldn’t control his obnoxious side. Bill Zehme tells the story in his book (“Lost In The Funhouse”) of the time Richard Gere was having dinner with a friend in the deli. Kaufman noticed him and, staying in busboy character, went over to see if everything was okay. He did this over and over again with the express purpose of annoying Gere enough to get a response. Gere was irritated, but didn’t want to make a scene. Finally, Kaufman took a pot of coffee to the table and started refilling Gere’s cup, but didn’t stop when it was full. He kept pouring, so that the coffee overflowed onto the table and into Gere’s lap. At that point, Gere exploded with anger, as any normal person would. Kaufman was thrilled to have engendered such a reaction. Here’s where the over-indulging comes in. He was not fired or even castigated for this stunt. It was simply written off as one of Andy’s moments of real-life theater, and Gere was made out to be the humorless one for not going along with the joke. Hello?

There was nothing entertaining about Kaufman’s wrestling theatrics either, least of all his bouts with women -- which, by the way, were merely a ruse on his part to get women to rub up against him. He was doing it purely for the sexual thrill (he would get so excited onstage that more than once he had to be taped down so that his erection wouldn’t be visible on television). It was the kind of misogyny that even the WWF wouldn’t sink to. Yet Kaufman was over-indulged and allowed to do it on television time and time again. Why?

Oh yeah, because he was a genius.

A Blockbuster Rewind

When it was announced last week that Blockbuster Video was closing its remaining 300 stores, I was surprised. Not that the business had gone so far south, but that it was still around. The local franchisee here had shuttered his locations several years ago, and I don't think I'd been in one for over a decade.

I was an early adopter of DVRs and digital downloads and Netflix, with its searchable database and huge collection, so I had little use for Blockbuster anymore. But in the 80s and 90s, when I was a customer, the thing I found most annoying wasn't the late fees or the staff's lack of movie knowledge or the constant reminders to rewind the VHS tapes after viewing.

It was the company's definition of "new." Once you walked in the door, you were surrounded by three walls full of videos with giant signs that said New Releases. The implication was that all of those videos had been added recently, but one quick glance proved that "new" and "recent" were much more relative terms in the Blockbuster dictionary.

To me, "new" means a movie that's just come out on video. I understand that it's impractical to only keep titles on that shelf for a week until another batch of new releases comes in, so I'd understand if "new" meant "in the last couple of months." But Blockbuster stretched "new" to mean "in the last few years." When truly new (just released) titles came in, there were simply added to the smorgasbord, hidden among the older material. Unless you knew exactly what you were looking for, because you'd read about it in Entertainment Weekly or heard about it from a friend, you were forced to graze through the entire collection until something caught your eye that you hadn't seen before.

Blockbuster was also the first evidence I had of the enormous number of movies that are made that no one's ever heard of. I don't mean obscure indie movies, I mean truly bad ones that were nothing more than an enormous waste of time and money. I don't see every movie that comes out, but because I've always talked about them on my radio show, I'm usually aware of what's come the pike -- or at least I thought so, until I scanned the shelves at Blockbuster.

Once, in the early 1990s, I tried an experiment. The idea was to start with the first shelf of the alphabetical listing of New Releases, and see how far I got before I spotted a title I had never heard of. It wasn't long before I came upon "Alligator 2: The Mutation." The title implied that there must have been a first "Alligator" movie, but I'd never heard of it, either, and this was in the days long before I could whip out my iPhone and check IMDb for details.

I pulled "Alligator 2" off the shelf, looked at the ridiculous cover art, then flipped it over to discover who was responsible for what I was sure was a piece of crap, and was surprised that it starred a couple of actors I'd heard of -- Joe Bologna (hilarious as King Kaiser in "My Favorite Year") and Dee Wallace (the mom in "ET: The Extra-Terrestrial") -- and came out in 1991. You can guess the plot, in which a giant alligator gets into the sewage system and terrorizes a town. There was no way I was going to rent this bomb, so I returned the box to the shelf.

And that's when I saw it. Right there, in the next slot: "Alligator." The original movie. Which the box said had been made in 1980. I was probably the only person who had ever lifted it off that shelf since it had been put there.

But in the Blockbuster universe, it was still a New Release.

Faking It En Masse

Improv Everywhere has been doing a series of Movies In Real Life, with people acting out scenes from famous movies in the places where they originally took place. For this one, the setting was Katz's Deli, where Meg Ryan performed her famous orgasm scene in "When Harry Met Sally." The restaurant has a sign over the table where she and Billy Crystal were seated, so it's not unusual for couples to re-enact the scene. But this time, things went a little differently...

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Poker Stories: No Lessons

Another in my occasional series of true poker stories.

A couple of years ago, I was playing in a cash game at the Horseshoe Casino in Hammond, Indiana (about a half-hour outside of Chicago), where a WSOP Circuit Event was taking place. While there, I encountered a phenomenon that's become more common in the last few years.

I was sitting next to a young guy, mid-20's, who was playing fairly well, but on one hand he was beaten by another player who made a very bad play and got lucky. The guy next to me started berating him, turning to another player he knew and loudly excoriating the bad player. His friend agreed with him, which made the young guy complain and demean his opponent even more. Meanwhile, the guy who had made the bad play wasn't saying a word; just stacking up the chips he'd won.

After almost three full minutes of this young guy mouthing off, I turned to him and said quietly, "This is none of my business, but I'm curious. Are you trying to make a living playing poker?" The young guy turned to me and said he was. "Then you really have to learn not to do this," I said. He looked confused, but not angry with me, so I continued: "The last thing you want is for the guy who beat you to leave the table because you're yelling at him. You want him to stay here and keep making bad plays, because in the long run, you'll get his money."

I could see the light bulb slowly going on over his head. This was obviously something he had never considered -- that any player can win a hand, but over time, the better players end up ahead.

I ran into exactly the same situation in a Las Vegas poker room. Another young pro was beaten by a loud, drunken Englishman at the other end of the table. After the hand, the pro went after him verbally, so much so that the surprised Englishman -- who was clearly there to just have a good time -- looked hurt and began to slump back in his chair. I asked the young pro if he had noticed that the Brit had a very large wad of cash behind his chips, and which he threw around with little abandon. "That money," I said to the kid, "is going to be mine, unless you make him leave this table, at which point neither of us will be happy. So cool it. Stop yelling at your opponents and never give them lessons."

He got the message, calmed down, bought some more chips, and went back to playing good poker. Over the course of the next two hours, as the Englishman reverted to drinking, playing almost every hand, and having a good time, the young pro and I both got a good share of his chips.

There's a scene in the movie "Rounders," where Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) recounts to Joey Knish (John Turturro) how he sat down in a big game at the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City and bluffed two-time WSOP champion and ten-time bracelet winner Johnny Chan out of a hand. To end the story, Mike says, "I played with the best, and I beat him."

It's a good scene, but it's not realistic. Sure, Mike bluffed Johnny out of one pot, but what happened over the course of several hours? At the end of the session, who made the most money? The longer they played, the better chance Chan had.

And I guarantee that Chan never yelled at his opponents when they made a bad play.

Impatient Congress

Mechanic: "Your car will be repaired in 4-5 weeks."

GOP Congressman, the next day: "Explain to this committee why my car isn't fixed yet!"

Put The Damn Phone Down

From My Twitter Feed

@PaulHarrisShow: Political pundits predicting who the nominees will be in 2016 should ask former President Giuliani for his opinion.

Monday, November 11, 2013

My Rob Ford Rant

The revelations of the last week about Toronto Mayor Rob Ford (admitting to smoking crack cocaine, video of him threatening to kill someone) reminded me of my years doing morning radio in Washington, DC, when then-Mayor Marion Barry was caught smoking crack in a hotel room in the infamous "bitch set me up" video. Barry bounced back from the allegations and went on to sit on the DC city council for many years. Meanwhile, in Toronto, Rob Ford's approval ratings actually went up after his admission and, instead of resigning, he says he'll stay in office and run for re-election next fall.

With all of that as background, I went on a rant on my America Weekend show. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Stories You Won't Believe Are True

But they are:

These Voices Sound Happy Together

The video's from the Ed Sullivan show, but the audio is the 1967 original recording with the instrumental track stripped, allowing you to hear The Turtles' harmonies on a rock classic...

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Ken Levine's "Must Kill TV"

If you watched some of the biggest TV comedies of the last 40 years, you’ve seen Ken Levine's name on the screen. With his partner David Isaacs, Ken wrote, directed, and produced shows like "M*A*S*H," "Cheers," "Frasier," and many others. He’s also worked in the major league baseball broadcast booth, calling games for the Seattle Mariners and Baltimore Orioles. Now, he’s written his first novel, “Must Kill TV,” and discussed it with me on America Weekend.

I asked him how different writing a novel is from a sitcom script, whether he's ever had stars make outrageous demands on him like his protagonist does of a network executive (kill my ex-girlfriend and I'll keep doing my big hit show), and about the infamous night the cast of "Cheers" followed the broadcast of their final show by appearing live -- and drunk -- on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno."

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

Ken Levine's blog is a must-read for anyone interested in the inner workings of television. You'll also find links to all of his books there.

NFL Locker Room Culture

As the Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin bullying case continues to spill out of the Miami Dolphins locker room, I invited Billy Corben to talk about it on my America Weekend show. Corben directed the documentary "Broke" for ESPN's 30-For-30 series, about athlete finances, and was shocked by tales of "locker room extortion" that veterans force upon rookies in the NFL. For instance, Martin was forced to pay $15,000 for some of the older players to go to Las Vegas, a trip he wasn't allowed to go on. Then there's Leon Searcy, a former Pittsburgh Steelers lineman who spent $20,000 on perks for veterans.

Corben and I also discussed the hazing traditions and locker room culture of the NFL -- from racism to bullying threats -- and whether outsiders like us should even be commenting on something we've never been a part of. I, of course, have no qualms speaking out whenever I see someone doing something wrong, and don't buy the "it's just our culture" argument that is always used to defend wrongful behavior.

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

Meanwhile, on the CBS NFL Sunday show, Shannon Sharpe -- who did play the game and is therefore, I guess, permitted to speak on the subject -- came down hard on the "locker room culture" of the Dolphins in allowing a white player to use the n-word towards black players...

JFK's Musical Connections

Here's another tie-in to the upcoming 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination -- the music. Tim English joined me on America Weekend to discuss his book, "Popology: The Music of the Era in the Lives of Four Icons of the 1960s," in which he writes about the musical connections of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy. We talked about which songs influenced them, which artists contributed to their success, and why there aren't artists today writing hits about topical topics (as there were in that era).

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

Knuckleheads In The News® 11/10/13

Today's Knuckleheads In The News® include a tomahawk-throwing champion vs. a burglar, a man who woke up in a body bag, and a drunk woman who really wanted to go to McDonald's. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

League Of Denial

In their book, "League of Denial" and recent PBS "Frontline" documentary, Mark Fainaru-Wada and his brother Steve have done an outstanding job of investigating the NFL's concussion crisis. In our conversation on America Weekend, Mark revealed how the NFL has fought back against the scientists who have discovered the links between repeated on-field collisions and head trauma that ruins the lives of players once they leave the league (Junior Seau, Tony Dorsett, Mike Webster, Leonard Marshall, and thousands more). We also discussed whether the NFL can and will change, what its responsibility is to the players, and whether the book's release has had any effect on commissioner Roger Goodell and other NFL executives.

It all reminds me of the decades of denial by Big Tobacco despite scientific evidence of the dangers of its product. And yet, I continue to watch and enjoy pro football (as does Mark), although I am more aware of those helmet-to-helmet hits and the sacrifice these big men are making for my entertainment.

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

You can watch the "Frontline" show about "League Of Denial" for free here.

Explaining The Trans Fat Ban

Thursday, the FDA announced it was banning trans fats from the foods we consume, so I called upon Dr. Dean Ornish to join me on America Weekend to explain the repercussions of that decision. Will it change the taste? Will it raise prices? Why are there trans fats in our food in the first place if they're so dangerous? Dean has written several books about heart health, and advised both McDonald's and Pepsico on removing trans fats from their products in recent years.

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

Donor Dads

Vince Vaughn's upcoming movie, "Delivery Man," is about a guy who donated to a sperm bank when he was younger and finds out years later that his contributions were used to create over 500 children -- many of whom now want something from him. It sounds ridiculous, but in reality, there are men who have found themselves in similar situations (not with hundreds of offspring, but with dozens) who came looking for them later in life.

There's also an MTV show called "Generation Cryo" that will debut later this month, about a 17-year-old girl who tracks down her 16 half-brothers and -sisters in a search for her donor father. That show uses the resources of the Donor Sibling Registry, whose executive director, Wendy Kramer, joined me on America Weekend to talk about it.

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

Cold Case JFK

With the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination approaching, there will be lots of TV shows related to the subject in the next two weeks. One that I'm looking forward to is "Cold Case JFK," which will air Wednesday night as part of the Nova series on PBS. In it, forensic scientist Lucien Haag uses modern techniques and equipment to check the physical evidence of the crime to see what really happened, and in the process confirms and debunks many of the theories that have been floating around for the last half-century.

Haag joined me on America Weekend to preview the show, discussing what's changed in forensic capabilities since 1963, where and how he did his testing, what he discovered, and whether he thinks he'll change the minds of conspiracy theorists. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Knuckleheads In The News® 11/9/13

Today's Knuckleheads In The News® include a taser wager, a laser pointer sea rescue, and vodka at knifepoint. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Harris Challenge 11/8/13

This week's Harris Challenge includes the categories "His Name Is The Title," "The Global Village," and "This Week in Sports and Hobbies." Listen and play along, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!