One of the most popular columns on this website is a piece I wrote 13 years ago called Halloween Harris Style. Read it here.
Thursday, October 30, 2014
This week's Harris Challenge -- the most fun you can have with your radio on -- includes trivia categories "Vulture's Most Valuable Movie Stars," "Classic Rock Trios," and "Other Oscars." Listen and play along, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!
My latest batch of Knuckleheads In The News® stories include a cigarette headache, chainsaw revenge, and the wrong text to send to your probation officer. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!
Tuesday, October 28, 2014
This week's Harris Challenge -- the most fun you can have with your radio on -- includes trivia categories "Baseball Slang," "Eighty One to Ninety Nine," and "Not A Good Week." Listen and play along, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!
My latest batch of Knuckleheads In The News® stories include a couple literally stuck in love, a woman who spent a week in a KFC, and a con artist in a coma. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!
Jim Nelson, managing editor of GQ, remembers his days in Hollywood as assistant to a team of comedy writers...
Across the hall, through the glass door of the reception room, I can see my bosses laughing hysterically in their office. They sit facing each other at two massive wooden desks, howling and hooting and idle to all the world, like senators-elect without a mandate. Their desktops are covered with toys—wind-up fruit, plastic swami snakes, a clattering set of dentures. They sit with their feet up, shoes off, reading Variety or leisurely gazing out the window at Gower Street, occasionally winding a toy. And they laugh. They crack each other up. This is what they are each paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to do. This is called comedy development.Read Nelson's full piece here.
And it is comic. This is the era of extravagant development deals. Columbia, home to Married…with Children and Who's the Boss?, is signing up writers left and right—playwrights, performance artists, mildly successful sitcom staffers—to sit around all day and dream up premises for TV series. When the writers come up with what they think is a brilliant concept, they pitch the Columbia development executives, and if the execs like it, the studio pitches the idea to the networks. If the networks bite, the writers become producers of the series, and everyone gets rich.
What, you might ask, have my bosses done to deserve their deal? They worked on a show called The New Leave It to Beaver. Oh, you don't remember that one? It was a groundbreaking series—for Jerry Mathers. Born on the Disney Channel in 1985 as Still the Beaver. Died on TBS the Year of Our Lord, nineteen hundred and eighty-nine. My bosses act as if the Beaver reboot were the modern comedy equivalent of Monty Python, as if everyone in Hollywood were hyper-aware of the brilliant Eddie Haskell subplots they wrote. The way they move through the hallways at Columbia, the way they verily strut into pitch meetings, you can tell they're still drinking in the mediocre success of The New Leave It to Beaver.
Monday, October 27, 2014
The green coffee bean extract that he promoted on his TV show as a "useful tool for weight loss" suffered another setback last week when the authors of the study who made the original claims about it retracted their paper. The company that sold the extract has been fined $3.5 million by the FTC, whose director said, "Applied Food Sciences knew or should have known that this botched study didn't prove anything."
Now Dr. Oz has removed every mention of green coffee bean extract from his website, including the episode he devoted to touting the product and an "independent" experiment he claimed to have conducted that proved its weight-loss effects. This is the nonsense he was berated about by Senator Claire McCaskill during a Senate hearing a few months ago.
Saturday, October 25, 2014
Friday, October 24, 2014
Thursday, October 23, 2014
A college marching band performing classic rock songs may not sound like a great idea -- until you see the medley the Ohio State University marching band did last Saturday. Not only did they play songs by the Scorpions, Kiss, and Edgar Winter, but also turned themselves into the Rolling Stones' lips logo and a giant pinball machine for The Who's "Pinball Wizard" (watch for the guy who runs around as the pinball)...
Wednesday, October 22, 2014
An in-depth profile of Billy Joel by Nick Paumgarten in The New Yorker:
Billy Joel has never really been hip. He is widely loved but also, in many quarters, coldly dismissed. The critics got on him early. “Self-dramatizing kitsch” (Dave Marsh); “A force of nature and bad taste” (Robert Christgau). The contempt embedded in the lyrics of “Piano Man,” toward the patrons at the bar and the whole enterprise of entertaining people with music, soured many on him from the start. Joel wasn’t what the critics were looking for in the mid-seventies, when punk was knocking on the door. Their notions of authenticity, however flimsy, didn’t allow for his kind of poppy piano tristesse. One slam on him used to be that he was derivative, aping other voices or styles, or else mercenary, a soulless craftsman exploiting his technical and melodic agility to churn out insidious confections for the purpose of making money. These charges he has answered over and over. In the old days, he’d tear up reviews onstage. He used to call critics on the phone and scold them. (“You can’t know what I was thinking when I was writing that song.”) In his mind, he wasn’t trying to write hits. He just wrote songs that he hoped would sound good together on an album. The record company picked out the singles.Read Paumgarten's full piece here.
And it did a good job: he had thirty-three Top Forty hits. That’s an awful lot—about twice as many as Springsteen, the Eagles, or Fleetwood Mac. Some were schmalz, others were novelties, but a crate of them are songs that have embedded themselves in the great American jukebox and aren’t going away anytime soon. If you hate them, fine. A lot of people, even some rock snobs, love them still. I’m tired of “Piano Man,” too, but “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” gets me every time. “Summer, Highland Falls” is for real. As for derivative, Joel won’t deny it; he loved the Beatles, Ray Charles, Otis Redding, and Smokey Robinson, so why not try to sound like them? At his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, in 1999, he was introduced by Ray Charles. Joel said, “I know I’ve been referred to as derivative. Well, I’m damn guilty. I’m derivative as hell.” He said that if the Hall of Fame disqualified candidates on the basis of being derivative, “there wouldn’t be any white people here.”
I'm waiting for my iPhone 6 to arrive next month, but in the meantime, I downloaded iOS 8.0.1 a couple of weeks ago to my iPhone 4s. Big mistake! I knew the operating system was much larger than iOS 7, but I figured that my 64gb phone could handle it. It couldn't.
The phone suddenly worked much more slowly and with a lot of aggravation. Switching between apps (by double-clicking the home button) didn't work correctly, and some of the apps would get stuck so badly that I'd have to re-boot the whole thing. Plus, Siri seemed to have a bad attitude, like I was making her work overtime.
The biggest problem was that the bluetooth I used in my car wouldn't connect, or if it did, it connected for audio but not for phone calls. Many times, I'd get in the car and the handshake between the vehicle's audio system and the phone's bluetooth would cause the phone to ring once and then pause, locking up the whole system for both audio and calls. I'd have to disconnect bluetooth, turn it back on, then choose the car's connection again and again. A huge pain.
But I'm happy to report that Apple has fixed those problems with the new iOS 8.1, which became available this week. After downloading it, I'm not having any significant problems with the 4s.
I mention all of this because many of you may also have an iPhone 4s, and I'd suggest that you do the same thing I told my wife -- do not download any version of the new operating system, particularly if you own the 16gb version. Also, because most of the apps have been updated by their providers to work with the new operating system, they may be incompatible with your phone running on the old OS. To avoid those problems, go into Setting > General > Background App Refresh and turn it off.
I wish someone had told me this two weeks ago so I could have avoided these problems.
posted at 2:36 PM
Last week, Jimmy Fallon had Sting on "The Tonight Show" and asked him to try to imitate cell phone ringtones with his voice. The bit was cute, although like almost everything else on late night talk show, not at all spontaneous.
Fallon always acts like he's asking guests to do something they're not prepared for, but of course they've already planned the whole thing out, gotten the guests' approval, and probably rehearsed it -- if they didn't want to do it, the bit would have been scrapped. The ideas and games are usually amusing and guests know that Fallon's bits regularly go viral online, so they're happy to play along, but they don't hear the idea for the first time on the air.
This bit ended with Sting singing "Message On My Voicemail" for an audience member chosen at random. But while the guy might have thought it was cool to have as his outgoing message, it wasn't personalized for him, and the audience's reaction drowned out part of Sting's singing. Fallon and Sting and The Roots should have recorded another version backstage (without the crowd), which they could have given to the guy, and then put online for the public to download at 99¢ each, with the proceeds going to some charity (like Sting's Rainforest Foundation). I bet they'd have a million downloads, minimum.
Then there's the reality of having that song as your outgoing message -- it would get old very quickly. Imagine calling someone and, every time they don't answer, you have to listen to all 30 seconds or so of Sting before you can leave your message. In our immediate-gratification world, that would be really annoying after the novelty wore off (by approximately the second time, I'd guess).
It's like the people who still have a voicemail message that says, "You have reached 555-5555. I'm sorry I can't take your call at this time. Please leave your name and number and the time you called, and I'll get back to you as soon as I can. Thank you for calling." Too much information! Everyone in the world knows how voicemail works, we know we're supposed to leave a message, and we don't need any instructions. Perhaps it dates back to the days when we had answering machines with cassettes inside, and you had to have a 20-second-duration outgoing message because that's how long it took for the tape to wind around to the silver metallic strip that created the beep (remember calling someone whose message wasn't long enough, and there were several seconds of dead air at the end?).
The best -- briefest -- outgoing messages I've ever heard were from John Ogle (my newsman at WCXR/Washington in the 80s and 90s), who simply said, "You've reached a machine," and Penn Jillette, who got it done even more efficiently with a simple "VIVA!"
Those were much better than having to sit through "Message On My Voicemail" every time I called you. In fact, I'd probably stop calling you, opting instead to conduct our business via text, where no instructions are necessary.
Tuesday, October 21, 2014
Dan Hayden was Program Director of WHCN/Hartford when I worked there (1981-85). He was a visionary who led the station through its greatest years as the most popular rock radio station in Connecticut. Dan's the one who turned me from a nighttime music personality to a full-blown morning man, a daypart I stayed in for 15 years as I moved on to New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, until I was too tired of waking up at 4am to go to work. After I left WHCN, Dan brought back Michael Picozzi to take over the morning show for the next decade with my former news guy/sidekick, Gary Lee Horn.
Last night, Dan posted this on Facebook:
On Sunday Michael Picozzi managed a very cool move. Quick background, around 1980-ish WHCN moved its studios from a downtown Hartford high rise to an old mansion on Asylum Hill.
I thought it would be a good idea to place a very large rock in front of the building so all would know what the station stood for. General Manager Bill Lee and I spent a day searching quarries for the ideal stone. We found it at the bottom of a hill at a quarry in Danielson (I think) -- a long haul from Hartford.
Years later Clear Channel purchased WHCN and moved the station back downtown. The other rock station in town, WCCC, moved into the former WHCN building and carried on the rock tradition until recently being sold.
So the cool move is this: Picozzi managed to have the rock – weighing several tons – moved to the front lawn of his house. And there it sits in all its rock ‘n roll glory. I won’t give out the address you can ask Michael for that. In the history of Hartford radio there have only been two commercial rock stations and ‘the rock’ was an important part of both of them. Many, many rock artists and radio personalities were photographed hanging around that glorious rock. Nice move, Michael!Going to work every day for four years in that unique facility was one of the highlights of my career, a place where I learned an enormous amount about making great radio and worked with a lot of talented people. The photo above shows the WHCN staff gathered next to The Rock circa 1983.
That's me in the back row -- in a tie and beard and full head of hair! The beautiful young woman on the bottom left was a relatively new employee who made the mistake of falling in love with me (and vice versa) that year -- and we're still together more than three decades later. Also in that row are Kim Alexander (who replaced me in evenings when I moved to mornings), newswoman Phyllis Parizek, production guy Tom "50,000" Watts, Dan Hayden, and promotions director Teri Milling.
Gary was next to me (our show was "Harris and The Horn"). The guy on the upper right was weekender Andy Geller, who went on to a career as a bigtime voiceover guy, as did Bob Smith, the only one in sunglasses. In front of me was Bob Bittens, then the Midday Man/Music Director and later Program Director when Dan left WHCN. In the middle with the v-neck and beard was Phil Kirzyc, a truly great disc jockey who regularly kicked my butt in a video football game we played in his apartment a lot.
I apologize for not remembering everyone in the photo, as the years have not been kind to my memory, but each of them contributed to a truly remarkable radio experience for all of us who worked there -- and a helluva lot of listeners, too.
posted at 12:05 AM
This week's Harris Challenge -- the most fun you can have with your radio on -- includes trivia categories "Dead People Who Make More Than You," "Cringing At The Debate," and "Movies About Scary Diseases." Listen and play along, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!
My latest batch of Knuckleheads In The News® stories include a fire in a crematorium, two convenience store robberies gone awry, and traffic tickets for a woman without a car. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!
Saturday, October 18, 2014
In 1995, when wolves were re-introduced to Yellowstone National Park after 70 years, they had a remarkable and unexpected effect on the animal population and the physical layout of the land...
Friday, October 17, 2014
posted at 12:06 AM
When the Woody Allen/Dylan Farrow incident was re-hashed earlier this year, it was ugly, and several people who know I'm a Woody Allen fan asked whether I believed her or him. I told them that I couldn't take a side because I don't actually know what happened. Sure, I know her allegation and I know his denial, but I don't have any data to base a conclusion on.
That's why I was fascinated by this talk by social psychologist Carol Tavris at The Amazing Meeting this summer, in which she explained how difficult it is to dissect He Said/She Said questions in sexual communications. As the father of a college-age daughter, I was particularly interested in Tavris' take on states (like California) passing laws regarding explicit consent between two students engaging in sex.
Thursday, October 16, 2014
In the last 24 hours, HBO and CBS have announced services you can pay for which will allow you to watch their shows and behind-the-scenes filler without a cable/satellite subscription. Some see this as the first step towards a la carte television, where you only pay for what you want, instead of the other 926 channels the provider shoves down the line to your house.
But Alan Sepinwall says you should be careful what you ask for. Not only will the individual services in the aggregate be pricier than the bundle, but the financial impact on "unwanted" channels could keep great television from being created in the future:
Keep in mind that the current environment has also allowed channels like FX, AMC and Sundance to exist long enough for them to develop programs that viewers cared passionately about. If a la carte cable existed in the mid-'00s, I sure wouldn't have bothered subscribing to AMC, and maybe the channel would have simply gone out of business before "Mad Men" was created — or wouldn't have had enough of a subscriber base for that show to survive.Read Sepinwall's full piece here.
Yesterday, I tweeted:
I wonder how many people worried about being infected by ebola have been vaccinated against the flu they're much more likely to catch?Gabriel Bell wrote at Vocativ:
While worldwide it's a true threat (the WHO just called it "the most severe, acute health emergency seen in modern times"), Ebola has yet to pose the same kind of danger in the States. Indeed, in the larger scheme of deadly diseases in the U.S., Ebola not only is a newcomer, it's almost statistically nonexistent. While it has the power to spread, kill, and scare, it remains so highly monitored, so highly controlled, that the chance of you or someone you know contracting and dying of it is next to nil (at least for the moment).Jon Stewart went after news outlets going crazy over Ebola on "The Daily Show" Tuesday night, and yet the media won't stop the fear-mongering reports. Even the new host of NBC's "Meet The Press," Chuck Todd, tweeted Wednesday evening:
Getting the third degree from my 7 and 10yo about Ebola and my travels. Clearly the fear has gone viral and is a topic in school.Yes, Chuck, that's because you and your colleagues across the media spectrum keep playing it up like there's an Ebola plague in the US when there isn't! While thousands of Africans have died and will continue to die from the disease (a story that you've been abandoned because the victims are on another continent), Ebola has killed exactly one person here, out of a population of some 320 million. Meanwhile, thirty thousand more Americans will be killed by guns this year than by Ebola, not to mention cigarette smoking, unsafe sex, and salmonella -- but where's that wall-to-wall coverage?
The only voice of reason on this topic has been Shepard Smith of Fox News. Shockingly, on a network that allows Bill O'Reilly, Megyn Kelly, and others to create panic on the air, Smith took a few minutes yesterday to try to calm things down by explaining the facts (!) about Ebola, calling out irresponsible reporting on the subject, and finishing by telling viewers to get a flu shot...
Wednesday, October 15, 2014
posted at 2:01 PM
Matt Bai appeared on "The Daily Show" Monday night to promote his book, "All The Truth Is Out: The Week The News Went Tabloid." It's about Gary Hart's withdrawal from the 1984 presidential race after allegations about his personal life were made public by the media.
At the end of the interview, Jon Stewart asked, "Do you think there are people of substance who could have done this country great things, who we will never know about because of the corrosive nature of our politics??" Bai's answer was so perfect that even Stewart was taken aback at its brilliance:
I do, Jon. I've been covering national politics for 15 years. I've covered 4 presidential campaigns. I do think we lose people who don't want to put themselves through this unendurable process or put their families through it. I think we drum good people out of politics who are defined by the single worst thing they've ever done as opposed to the context of their public lives. And I think we make it much, much easier for people who have no business holding office to enter the process, because when you're not talking about ideas and worldviews and agendas, when you're talking about character and personality, it makes it very easy for someone to float through the process without ever having to explain themselves or demonstrate what they know.You can watch the full Stewart-Bai conversation here.
Several months ago, I wrote about Phil Ivey -- one of the world's best poker players and a high-stakes gambler in other casino games -- and his battle against two casinos over millions of dollars he won playing Punto Banco, a form of Baccarat. Ivey used edge-sorting, which he calls "advantage play" and the casinos call "cheating."
Last week, Ivey lost a lawsuit against London casino Crockford's, which refused to pay him his winnings. He is still fighting Atlantic City casino The Borgata, which paid him and now wants its money back. On an episode of Showtime's "60 Minutes Sports" that is airing this month, Ivey sat down with James Brown to defend his actions, claiming that it can't be cheating if the casinos accede to his requests. His logic is that they want his money, and he wants theirs, and as long as he doesn't break the law, it's their fault when they lose to him.
I can't embed that "60 Minutes Sports" segment, but if you have Showtime, set your DVR to catch it as it replays several times in October. You'll notice that no one from either casino appears in the piece, which is not unusual because both cases were still pending when it was shot, but their absence means only Ivey gets to tell his story -- thus gaining the advantage again.
I'm looking forward to seeing Brian Regan when he comes to St. Louis next week. In the meantime, I love this story he tells Jerry Seinfeld -- as part of a montage of comedians talking about jobs they had before pursuing comedy full time...
Tuesday, October 14, 2014
From my Twitter feed...
- I've begun my own Ebola screening program -- by turning off any newscast that tries to scare viewers into believing they might become infected.
- Sarah Larson’s profile of the late, brilliant, and underrated SNL star Jan Hooks.
- Thinking about trying to get on “Jeopardy”? Read these tips from a former contestant first.
- Jay Leno hasn't gone away -- he's still doing gigs most weekends, as this profile shows.
posted at 7:41 AM
Friday, October 10, 2014
Ten more phrases that will never be used to describe me (the original list is here):
- He referred to friends as "peeps."
- He often spoke of the pompatus of love.
- He wished more foods included cilantro in their ingredients.
- He regularly turned heads with his impeccable fashion choices.
- He regretted not listening to more bagpipe music.
- He was this close to being inducted into the roller derby hall of fame.
- He enjoyed spending his free time on plumbing and auto repairs.
- He was jealous of Boxcar Willie being named America's Favorite Hobo.
- He would have been a masterful interior designer.
- He lived to surf.
posted at 12:02 AM
Thursday, October 09, 2014
Another in my occasional series of poker stories...
Several years ago, I was playing in a cash game at the Rio in Las Vegas during the World Series of Poker and when I got up to stretch my legs, I saw Craig (not his real name), a former Main Event champion, walk into the room. I had interviewed him a couple of times, so I went over to say hello.
As I approached, he was talking with one of the supervisors who maintains the list of live games and the players waiting to get into them. Craig asked the guy to start a list for $300/600 BOT -- a mixed game of Badugi, Omaha, and Triple-Draw Lowball, three variations of poker that would alternate for each round at the table.
The supervisor said sure and went to add it to the board, so Craig turned back to me and we talked for awhile. It only took 10 minutes for that list to fill up, and when the supervisor advised him the table was ready to start, Craig said he'd see me later and went to sit down in his game, while I went back to mine.
After a couple of hours, I got up to stretch my legs again and went over to watch some of the action at Craig's table. To my amazement, he had a huge stack of chips in front of him, much larger than any of his opponents. When he wasn't in a hand, I leaned over and asked him how he'd done it, and he replied quietly, "Nobody knows how to play Badugi!"
The valuable lesson from that day: when a professional poker player wants to start a list for a new game, or introduce a variation you're not proficient in (or never even heard of!), he/she is probably really good at it and knows they have an edge, and you should back away.
I've seen this in local poker games where we were playing No Limit Hold'em shorthanded and, to entice other people to the table, some of the players wanted to turn it into a mixed game, with a round of Pot Limit Omaha alternating with a round of Hold'em. The guys doing the proposing were always very good at both games, and they figured that if they could get Hold'em players who weren't as proficient at PLO (or vice versa), they'd have an advantage.
I'm comfortable playing either, so I'll usually agree, but it depends on who's at the table, how big their stacks are, and whether making the change will scare away an opponent that I do not want to leave. At a poker table, it's better to be selfish than to lose your edge.
Again, the story about Craig was several years ago, and since then, lots of people -- particularly high-stakes players -- have learned how to master Badugi (along with its bastard cousins, Badacey and Badeucy), but at the time, it was a relatively new game on the poker landscape, and Craig was simply better at it than the rest of the pack. Results might be different today.
Read more of my poker stories here.
Wednesday, October 08, 2014
In an excerpt from Mark Whitaker's new bio of Bill Cosby, he quotes some of the comedians who gave tribute to Cosby when he was given the Mark Twain Award For Humor in 2009:
Dick Gregory recalled what it had been like to be the first black comedian to perform in a white nightclub. It was 1961, and Gregory was a 29-year-old post office worker moonlighting at a black club in Chicago called Roberts Show Bar. Hugh Hefner came in one night and liked Gregory’s “That‟s okay, I don’t eat colored people” routine so much that he booked him at the Playboy Club. Gregory’s career took off, but for years he was invariably referred to as a “Negro comedian.”Read more of the book excerpt here.
“My brother,” Gregory said as he looked up at Cosby’s box, “I came out here tonight to thank you for what you was able to do… When Bill broke through with I Spy and all of the brilliance, all of the wisdom, from that day on they dropped the word ‘Negro’ off my name!”
Jerry Seinfeld remembered his first Bill Cosby album. It was 1966, and he was another 12-year-old Jewish kid growing up in the Long Island suburbs. Like countless other boys in Massapequa, he had a crew cut and wore Keds sneakers and T-shirts with horizontal stripes. Then one day he bought Why Is There Air? and brought it home to play on the portable turntable in his room. Legs crossed, he sat on the floor and listened to the album over and over again.
“I completely lost my mind,” Seinfeld said. “In comedy, people very casually use the word hysterical. They don’t mean it literally, because the real meaning of the word hysterical is not something a person wants to be. It means an out of control, almost convulsive state of emotional breakdown. I became hysterical listening to Why Is There Air? It really was the singular, most powerful event of my entire childhood.”
Chris Rock told the story of being turned on to Bill Cosby by none other than Eddie Murphy, the same Murphy who later turned imitating and mocking Cosby into one of his trademarks. It was the mid-’80s, and Rock was a high school dropout from Brooklyn starting to perform stand-up in Manhattan comedy clubs. Murphy took him under his wing, and one day he gave Rock To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With.
“He said, ‘If you really want to be a comedian, you need to listen to this album,’” Rock said. “And to this day, whenever I meet a comedian I like, I make sure that they have that album.”
posted at 9:19 AM
Tuesday, October 07, 2014
In the last two weeks, I have been at a stage musical and a movie screening which were both introduced by DJs from local radio stations. I've had some experience with this in my long career, and both of these occasions made me cringe.
Let's start with the musical by saying that no one should be on stage before the show begins. If there have to be announcements (for safety purposes, or an understudy taking over a role, or the obligatory no video/audio recording), it should be recorded and played from offstage before the festivities get rolling. Once the lights go down, the audience expects the show to begin. We're ready to enter the make-believe world the playwright and performers will transport us to. We don't need the midday jock from some radio station welcoming us and asking, "Are you ready to have some fun?"
At the show we attended ("Mrs. Independent" at the Fox -- so bad we walked out at intermission), the audience had been kept in the lobby well past the scheduled start time because the crew was fixing some technical problem backstage. The delay affected the crowd's mood. So when the DJ asked, "Are you ready?" the guy behind me shouted, "We were ready a half-hour ago!"
The question is inherently stupid anyway. Whether it's for a play, a movie, or a concert, we've gotten tickets, put on some nice clothes, perhaps gotten a babysitter, driven to the venue and found a parking place, and worked our way through the crowd to find our seats. By definition, we are ready for the entertainment -- you don't have to pump us up.
Which brings me to the movie screening (Denzel Washington in "The Equalizer"). When the DJ that night asked "Are you ready?" the crowd apparently didn't respond loudly enough for him, so he exhorted them with, "C'mon, y'all, make some noise if you're ready to see this movie!!" That's counter-productive. First of all, we're in a movie theater, where the audience should be trained to be quiet. Secondly, the thing that's delaying the movie's start is not our state of readiness, it's your blabbing!
Then the DJ (and an assistant from the radio station) started giving away t-shirts and worthless stuff (who are these people waving their hands hoping to win a pen?). The problem was that all they did was walk up and down the aisle and throw the freebies into the crowd or hand them to people in the aisle.
As I said, I've had experience with this sort of thing, having hosted hundreds of movie screenings over the decades. In simply tossing junk into the audience, the DJ actually alienated those of us who didn't want anything except to be entertained. That's why, when I have been the guy up there, I always asked trivia questions, usually about the stars of the movie. That way, even the people who don't care about winning something can play along.
It's the same strategy by which I created The Harris Challenge for my radio shows 25+ years ago. At the time, any radio giveaway (from a t-shirt to concert, movie, or sporting event tickets) was done by asking for the 9th caller, or the 20th caller, or whatever random number the jock chose. I realized how boring that was, and that the vast majority of the audience didn't care because they were never going to call in. Instead, I started doing trivia and other games that listeners could play along with, participating passively while being entertained. The concept took off, and The Harris Challenge is still the most popular thing I do on the radio (it now airs at 5:15pm CT every Friday on KTRS/St. Louis, and you'll find the podcasts here).
I'm not telling you this to blow my own horn, but to point out how disengaged and lazy these other radio personalities are (that might be stretching the word "personality," but I was tired of typing "DJs"). Asking for the 6th caller or hurling things to a crowd takes virtually no effort, and shows no concern for the people you're hoping to make happy. Because if you can achieve that -- an actual connection that puts a smile on someone's face -- you have a much better chance at converting new listeners and keeping old ones.
The irony is that for too many radio people making these appearances, the answer to the question "Are you ready?" is "No!"
In “Gone Girl,” Ben Affleck’s wife, Rosamund Pike, disappears on their 5th anniversary. Their marriage has been going through a rough time, but he has no idea what happened to her. When cops investigate, they begin to think that he killed her and tossed her body somewhere. Then cable news gets into the act, with a Nancy Grace-like character (played perfectly by Missi Pyle) turning it into a witch hunt. To tell you anything else about the plot would spoil it -- although millions of people read Gillian Flynn's novel, so they already know where it goes. My wife was one of them, and she's always leery of movies based on books she enjoyed, but her verdict was that the film version (with Flynn's screenplay) is at least as good as the printed one.
Affleck and Pike are perfect for their roles, both chilling in their calmness. So is the supporting cast, which includes Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Patrick Fugit (the kid from "Almost Famous"), David Clennon, Sela Ward, and a star-making turn by Kim Dickens as the detective investigating the disappearance. Director David Fincher ("House of Cards," "The Social Network," "Benjamin Button," "Panic Room," "Fight Club," "The Game," and "Seven") keeps the proceedings tight without losing any of the suspense. I didn't even realize until it ended that "Gone Girl" lasts almost two-and-a-half hours; it's that gripping. But I will warn you that this is not a first-date movie (unless you're the twisted type whose relationship was kick-started by "Fatal Attraction").
I give "Gone Girl" a 9 out of 10 rating -- it's one of the best of the year. It's going to launch Pike's career to the next level and is confirmation that Affleck can do great work when he has the right material.
I tried not to read anything about the movie until I saw it, but afterwards, I read a New York Times story in which Affleck says the only argument he had with Fincher during filming was about a scene where his character puts on a baseball hat in the hopes he won't be recognized.
Fincher wanted him to wear a Yankees cap, but Affleck, a Red Sox fan, "would have none of it." "I said, 'David, I love you, I would do anything for you, but I will not wear a Yankees hat. I just can't. I can't wear it, because it's going to become a thing, David. I will never hear the end of it. I can't do it.' And I couldn't put it on my head." In the end, they compromised; Affleck wore a Mets hat during the scene.
Sunday, October 05, 2014
In an excerpt from his new autobiography, "Even This I Get To Experience," Norman Lear -- who at one point in the late 1970s had seven of the top ten shows on American television -- writes about CBS conducting focus groups to gauge reaction to the pilot of "All In The Family."
The host explained that they were going to be shown a thirty-minute situation comedy and the network was interested in their reaction to it. At each chair there was a large dial at the end of a cable. They were to hold that dial while watching the show and twist it to the right when they thought something funny or were otherwise enjoying a moment. If they didn’t think something was funny, if it offended them or simply bored them, they were to twist their dial to the left. Two big clocklike instruments hung high on the wall over the TV set to register the degree of the likes and dislikes of the group as they twisted their dials.Read the full excerpt from Lear's book at Deadline.
Those of us monitoring the focus group sat behind them, looking into a one-way glass wall. We saw and heard everything, and it revealed a good deal of what I knew instinctively about human nature. The group howled with laughter, rising up in their chairs and falling forward with each belly laugh. But wait! Despite the sound and the body language, they were dialing left, claiming to dislike much of what they were seeing, and they were really unhappy with it. But really!
“Who wants to be seen as having no problem with words such as spic, kike, spade, and the like spewing from a bigot’s mouth?”
While I can’t say I could have predicted this behavior, unlike my friends at CBS I understood and was elated by the audience’s reaction. Who, sitting among a group of strangers, with that dial in his or her lap, is going to tell the world that they approve of Archie’s hostility and rudeness? And who wants to be seen as having no problem with words such as spic, kike, spade, and the like spewing from a bigot’s mouth? So our focus group might even have winced as they laughed, but laugh they did, and dialed left. Comedy with something serious on its mind works as a kind of intravenous to the mind and spirit. After he winces and laughs, what the individual makes of the material depends on that individual, but he has been reached.
Saturday, October 04, 2014
The newest addition to my Movies You Might Not Know list is "Still Mine." It stars James Cromwell and Genevieve Bujold as Craig and Irene Morrison, a couple in their 80s who have been married for six decades.
He's doing fine, but she's in the early stages of Alzheimer's. Though Irene's forgetfulness frustrates Craig, he loves her deeply, and when she falls down the stairs of their big old farmhouse, he decides they need a smaller place. Unable to afford someone to build a new, smaller home nearby on his 2,000 acre property, Craig undertakes the project himself. He quickly runs afoul of the local building commission's bureaucracy because he doesn't have a permit, doesn't have blueprints, doesn't have the right approval stamps on the wood he's cut down from the old-growth pines on his own property. His neighbor and his children urge him to stop, and the bureaucrats take legal action against him, but Craig is on a mission to provide a new, safe, living environment for Irene, allowing her to live out her days with him rather than going into a facility.
The story, written and directed by Michael McGowan, works because Cromwell is perfect for the role. He's not playing the kindly old farmer from "Babe" anymore. He plays Craig as a stubborn man who is fighting two enemies -- the disease that is draining his wife away and the by-the-law inspector who is determined not to allow the new structure to be completed. Meanwhile, Bujold more than holds her own as Irene, never overplaying the dementia that's affecting her, yet still lovely in the way she shows her ongoing affection for Craig as her partner in life.
Click here to see my full Movies You Might Not Know list.
On his blog, my brother Seth (former Deputy Labor Secretary) writes about the Uber-ification of the American work force:
By any measure, a huge number of American workers have no employer and no co-workers. They have very few, if any, legal protections. They have no economic safety net with the possible exception of Social Security and Social Security Disability Insurance. They are on their own. And they are entirely disposable to companies like Uber, Lyft, and Task Rabbit. If one driver doesn’t show up for work, does anyone at Uber know? Does anyone care?Read Seth's full piece here.
While some may laud the flexibility of these disposable work relationships, there are significant risks for workers and our economy. Next time you ride in an Uber car, ask the driver about her work life. You will almost certainly hear the kinds of stories I have heard: people scrambling to patch together different kinds of jobs and tasks to make enough to support themselves and, sometimes, their families. It is a hand-to-mouth existence. There is no room for error, or even illness. A day off work for any reason is a day of pay lost forever. And the pay is low, in part thanks to a price war between Uber and Lyft, but also because these two companies want to underprice traditional taxi services to expand market share across the country.
These workers are not very different from other service-sector workers competing against an army of others who need very little —- in this case only a car and a driver’s license —- to flood the labor market. They have no bargaining power. They have no pensions, so they will either have to keep working into old age or rely on small Social Security checks if they qualify. Only Obamacare ensures that they can get health insurance, if they can afford it with the subsidies provided under the law. Otherwise, their government is not available to help them because they don’t meet the basic threshold for coverage by laws crafted in a very different era characterized by very different work relationships.
posted at 5:58 PM
This week's Harris Challenge -- the most fun you can have with your radio on -- includes trivia categories "Ben Affleck Movies Before Gone Girl," "Ringo's In Town," and "This Week In History." Listen and play along, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!
My latest batch of Knuckleheads In The News® stories include a woman who put a potato where it doesn't belong, a case of meth-taken identity, and a meal you'll never finish. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!
Friday, October 03, 2014
posted at 9:44 AM
Thursday, October 02, 2014
From my Twitter feed...
- Let me get this straight, NFL. If an atheist kneels in the end zone and gestures to celebrate a TD, that's a 15-yard penalty?
- Saw a print ad today for Ryan Seacrest's new line of suits. They're for the man who wants to say, "I'm responsible for the Kardashians!!"
- With Austin Davis being named Rams starting QB for the season, I stand by my prediction Shawn Hill and Sam Bradford won't be in the NFL next year.
- Bradford should keep his millions and find a job where the risk of concussion is 100% less than in the NFL (e.g. anything else).
posted at 6:29 PM
Earlier today, in recommending Randall Munroe's "What If?" book, I mentioned that there was only one question I was able to figure out: "What is the farthest one human being has ever been from every other living person?" Munroe's answer:
The most likely suspects are the six Apollo command module pilots who stayed in lunar orbit during a Moon landing: Mike Collins, Dick Gordon, Stu Roosa, Al Worden, Ken Mattingly, and Ron Evans. Each of these astronauts stayed alone in the command module while two other astronauts landed on the Moon. At the highest point in their orbit, they were about 3,585 kilometers [2,228 miles] from their fellow astronauts.And about 230,000 miles from the rest of us on Earth.
posted at 6:14 PM
In his book "What If?" Randall Munroe has worked out the serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions, including:
- What would happen if everyone on Earth stood as close to each other as they could and jumped with everyone landing on the ground at the same instant?
- If every human somehow simply disappeared from the face of the Earth, how long would it be before the last artificial light source would go out?
- If you suddenly began rising steadily at 1 foot per second, how exactly would you die -- would you freeze or suffocate first?
- If my printer could literally print out money, would it have that big an effect on the world?
- What would happen if lightning struck a bullet in midair?
- How hard would a puck have to be shot to be able to knock the goalie backward into the net?
The only one I was able to figure out without reading Munroe's answer was "What is the farthest one human being has ever been from every other living person?" I'll post the answer here later today, but I recommend you get the book for the answers to the rest (and many more).
posted at 11:09 AM
In Smithsonian Magazine, Michael Dobbs writes about the "football," the briefcase which allows the Commander-In-Chief to issue orders for a nuclear strike. It dates back to JFK's administration and, thankfully, its capabilities haven't been put into action -- yet.
With the threat of nuclear attack from another nation much less likely than another 9/11-style attack, the usefulness of the football is in doubt. It is supposed to be carried by a military aide who is with the President at all times, but the system is about as perfect as the Secret Service's protection plan for the White House...
For the Football to function as designed, the military aide must be nearby the commander in chief at all times and the president must be in possession of his authentication codes. Both elements of the system have failed on occasion. According to the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Hugh Shelton, Clinton mislaid his laminated code card, nicknamed the “Biscuit,” for several months in 2000. “This is a big deal, a gargantuan deal,” the general complained in his 2010 autobiography, Without Hesitation: The Odyssey of an American Warrior.Read Dobbs' full story here.
An even closer brush with disaster came during the attempted assassination of Reagan in March 1981. During the chaos that followed the shooting, the military aide was separated from the president, and did not accompany him to the George Washington University hospital. In the moments before Reagan was wheeled into the operating theater, he was stripped of his clothes and other possessions. The Biscuit was later found abandoned, unceremoniously dumped in a hospital plastic bag.
posted at 10:25 AM
Wednesday, October 01, 2014
Another in my series of occasional poker stories...
Charlie (not his real name) was a former World Series Of Poker Main Event champion who had a reputation for drinking a little too much, which led him to playing very loosely. So it wasn't a surprise when he walked into the poker room with a rack of chips in one hand and a drink in the other. I knew him, having interviewed him several times, and when he recognized me, he came over to ask what I was playing. I told him it was a $5/10 pot-limit Omaha game that had just started short-handed about an hour ago. He loves PLO, so he sat down immediately.
It took exactly one hand for his wild side to come out. He raised every hand of every street and took down a decent-sized pot -- and for the next half-hour, he kept it up, potting and re-potting, losing some, winning more, until he had increased his stack from $3,000 to $15,000. It wasn't really poker, with decisions being made on every street. Charlie and several of the others who got involved in hands with him were just "spinning the wheel," jamming their money in and seeing who got hit by the deck.
I'd been doing well before Charlie arrived, up a couple thousand, and didn't want to lose it in some stupid hand where luck was the only factor in determining outcome. So I pulled back and waited for a good opportunity. To give you an example of how out-of-control he made it: we were six-handed, all straddling the button for $25, and in one hand, the bet was $4,000 before it even got back to me on the button.
I looked down at my cards: 7-4-3-2, all different suits. I had a feeling that these were live cards, but it was a terrible hand for PLO (I'd have loved it if were playing Badugi), and I knew that if I called the $4,000, the next guy would just re-raise and I'd have to commit the rest of my stack to a hand I shouldn't have played in the first place. I folded and watched as three of them got all their chips in the middle. If I'd stayed in, I would have won with a wheel (A-2-3-4-5). Instead, Charlie took it down with one pair, kings.
By this time, word of his presence had reached several other pros in the casino (I know of at least one guy who was roused out of the shower in his hotel room by a fellow pro to come down and get in on this action). It was all they could do to keep from drooling as they sat down to fill up the table.
But Charlie wasn't happy. He didn't want to play in a "full ring." He wanted to keep the game six-handed and raise the stakes to $10/25/50. The floor supervisor said she couldn't change the game at this table, but agreed to open a new table for him, and five of the pros practically fell over each other grabbing empty seats around him there.
With Charlie gone, my table calmed down, other players joined the game, and things returned to normal. I lost a little, then won a few, and finished with a profitable session. Unfortunately, Charlie didn't. He kept slamming down drinks and raising every pot -- a bad combination in the long run.
Actually, the run wasn't that long. It took an hour. That's when I watched Charlie get up from the other table, still with a glass in his hand, but with no chips in the other. He had blown through the $15,000 and was done. He stumbled to an elevator to go to his hotel room and, no doubt, pass out.
I wonder if he even remembered it all the next day.
Read more of my poker stories here.
The pro-democracy rallies in Hong Kong are getting a lot of media attention, mostly because huge crowds of people in a downtown area make good TV pictures (although the networks, to their shame, virtually ignored the 300,000+ Americans who filled Manhattan for the People's Climate March two weeks ago -- they should have held the march in Tahrir Square to ensure wall-to-wall coverage).
But there's a protest underway in Colorado that hasn't gotten enough attention. High schoolers there are protesting modifications to the AP History curriculum by right-wingers to promote patriotism, while downplaying civil disobedience and social strife. The kids, who recognize that history has only been changed by people who stood up for what's right -- including the colonials who defied King George III to fight the American revolution! -- and that colleges and the rest of the real world will not look kindly on them as products of schools that bend history for political purposes.
Josiah Hesse of Vice talked to some of the protesting students:
“We’re not going to listen to empty promises and be influenced as easily as they think teenagers are,” said Scott Romano, a junior at Chatfield High School who helped organize Wednesday’s protest through Facebook. Romano told me he’s concerned about how these changes will affect future academic prospects for Jefferson County students.Read Hesse's full piece here.
“We don’t want national colleges to look at Jefferson County, Colorado, and say, ‘Oh, you passed the AP exam in Jefferson County? Well, that doesn’t mean the same thing as passing the AP exam in other districts,'" he added.
He's got a point. As Tony Robinson, chair of the University of Colorado at Denver’s political science department, put it, the new curriculum is destructive and will lead to “historical illiteracy" for students.
“They’ll be ignorant to the facts, but they’ll also be ignorant to civic consciousness,” Robinson told me. “There are a good deal of studies that show this kind of ‘patriotism education’ is associated with xenophobia, jingoism, and authoritarian personalities. And when those youth actually confront the reality of their country’s history, there’s a shocking moment of disillusionment and radicalization.”
posted at 1:58 PM
Erwin Chemerinsky is dean of the University of California–Irvine School of Law and a litigator who has argued cases before the highest court in the land. But in his new book, "The Case Against The Supreme Court," he takes the justices to task -- not just the current nine, but their predecessors, too. He recently did an interview with Dahlia Lithwick, Slate's peerless legal columnist, in which they touched on a topic I've discussed several times over the years:
Lithwick: Your argument for the failure of the court rests largely in the criticism that the most central role of the Supreme Court is to “enforce the Constitution against the will of the majority.” I imagine that a lot of your critics would disagree with that assessment. I imagine others would contend the Roberts court does protect minorities, say, when it protects the rights of billionaires to contribute to campaigns, or of religious Christians who don’t want to fund contraception. What makes you so certain that acting as a counter-majoritarian check is the defining role of the court?Read the entire Lithwick-Chemerinsky conversation here.
Chemerinsky: I think that there are two important questions here. First, why believe that a pre-eminent role of the court is to protect minorities? To me, it goes to the question of: Why have a Constitution? Why should a democracy be governed by a document that is difficult to change? It is not to protect the majority; they generally can protect themselves through the democratic process. It is minorities who cannot protect themselves through majoritarian democracy. I believe that the Constitution exists especially (though not exclusively) to protect the rights of minorities of all types.
Second, who is a minority? That is a difficult question. The key, based on my definition above, is those who are unlikely to be able to protect themselves in the majoritarian process. Examples include racial minorities, criminal defendants, the homeless, prisoners. Billionaires obviously are very able to protect themselves in the political process.
Lithwick: It’s important to emphasize that your book is not an indictment of the Roberts court (although you do have a chapter titled “Is the Roberts Court Really So Bad?”) and instead an argument that the Supreme Court, almost unerringly throughout its history, sides with the wealthy, the privileged, and the powerful. Can you explain why the court as an institution seems to align itself with those interests? Is it just too conservative an institution to act in the radical ways you seek? Are its members just too aligned with those interests by definition?
Chemerinsky: Yes, my book seeks to appraise the court throughout history and not just the Roberts court, though, of course, it discusses the Roberts court. You accurately state my thesis: Throughout history the court has overwhelmingly favored corporate power over employees, consumers, and the public, and has favored government power over individuals’ rights. I do not have a good or a sophisticated answer to your question of why. I think justices have overwhelmingly come from positions of privilege. Far more justices have been like John Marshall Harlan and John Roberts, having spent their careers representing corporations, than from being public defenders or public interest lawyers. I think, too, that the Court’s role has never been clearly enough defined in terms of enforcing the Constitution, protecting minorities, resisting the passions of the majority in times of crisis.
posted at 1:34 PM