Hundreds of people lined up for the opening of a furniture store in St. Louis today. They must be selling iPhones inside.
Wednesday, September 30, 2015
That's Ben Mendelsohn trying to get a read on me as we play a poker hand in "Mississippi Grind," a movie about two gamblers on the road which opens this Friday. This is Part Two of the notes I took during a long night of shooting that scene. You can read Part One here.
When they reset for the scene at my table, there are two cameras over my shoulder shooting Ben. I’m told to move an inch this way or that so they can adjust the focus for his close-up, then for some shots of the chips as he moves them, then for the cards in the middle of the table as the dealer puts them out. No one will see me from this angle. My opportunity will come later.
The dealer is a guy named Tim who works at Harrah’s New Orleans. He applied for a job there a couple of years ago, but they told him he had to get some experience first. So he got a gig as one of the hundreds of dealers at the WSOP that summer at the Rio, and impressed his bosses there so much that he was assigned to several final tables – including during the Main Event, which meant he got lots of face time on the ESPN coverage. When the folks at Harrah’s saw that, they offered him a job in their poker room.
Unlike the rest of the extras – including me – Tim gets to speak on camera, and in our scene he does exactly what he’d do in a regular game, from announcing “heads up” to the amount of a bet or raise. People who speak in the movies get more money than those who don’t.
During the down times, and during some of the long shots of the room, we’re supposed to be playing poker, so Tim deals hands and we fold, bet, check, etc. Some of the people at the table are locals who play at Harrah’s, either professionally or recreationally, and we have a good time playing the hands with the stacks of prop chips they’ve given us.
Keeping the phony game going was helpful to me because I have trouble with seasickness and, although the Mississippi wasn’t too choppy that evening, I could feel the motion getting to me when the evening started and the paddlewheeler moved up (and down) the river. Although it kept going back and forth all night, I never gave it a second thought once I was on the set and my mind could be distracted.
One of the local pros, Tony, is the poker advisor to Ryan and Anna. He tells them which chips have what value, what the stacks should look like for the scene between Ben and me, and makes sure that it looks like a real game is going on. With some kibitzing from me and the other real-life players at the table, it looks correct enough that there shouldn’t be much whining from the poker community when the movie comes out (at least about the technical aspects of this scene).
Since we were sitting there for hours, I got to know several of the other extras (although they aren’t called that -- the industry term is “background”). Mark is a businessman who moved to New Orleans from New York because he couldn’t take the snow. Ryan (not Reynolds, not Fleck) is a professional actor who also plays. Cody works at a local hotel, and she occasionally does some modeling. Laurel is a local poker pro who was recruited for the movie by Tony, along with Gilbert, a restaurant consultant who plays a lot of poker.
Most of the rest of the extras are over 60, and don’t get to do much of anything except sit at their tables and pretend to have conversations. When they aren’t needed on the set, they return to the first floor of the boat, where they sit around tables talking, reading, whatever.
Many of the extras have worked on a lot of movies and TV shows in New Orleans, which attracts a lot of productions (e.g. “Grudge Match,” “Treme,” “Planet Of The Apes,” and the latest chapters in the “Jurassic Park” and “Terminator” franchises). Mark tells me that some of these have small groups of extras, like the 50-60 working tonight, while others have hundreds on the set for crowd scenes. Despite the long hours of boredom, these folks keep coming back, either for the paycheck (which can grow to $1,000 for a six-day work week if the shoot runs into overtime a lot) or for the prospect of seeing themselves on-screen.
For the extras, there are snacks available in the holding area (candy, fruit, chips, coffee, water), laid out in advance by the craft services people (the caterer). At 10pm, the contractual time for “lunch,” the boat returns to the dock and we get off to fill a plate from a little buffet that’s been set up in a tent on the riverwalk and then carry it back to the holding area on the boat. Mark tells me that he’s been on productions where everyone was served steak and shrimp, and on others where everyone got a bag lunch with a sandwich and chips. Tonight, the spread includes meatloaf and mashed potatoes and red beans and rice.
It’s a cold night – especially for New Orleans – so waiting in line behind several dozen people is no fun, especially since I know the food won’t still be hot by the time I get to the front. I’m not usually a late-night eater, so even though I haven’t eaten anything but an apple and a banana in the last 7 hours, I just grab some salad and a couple of rolls and wash them down with water.
By the way, the extras eat last. The stars, the directors, and the crew always go first. I smirk wondering if Sienna Miller, who can’t weigh more than 110 pounds, ate more than I did during lunchtime.
Tomorrow: they point the cameras at me.
Previously on Harris Online...
- My experience in New Orleans when I wasn't on the "Mississippi Grind" set (2/13/14).
- My conversation with Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, writer/directors of "Mississippi Grind" (10/3/15).
- A poker story I told Anna and Ryan which they put in the movie (7/30/13).
- Other poker stories I've told on this site over the years.
Tuesday, September 29, 2015
There's a movie coming out this weekend and I'm in it!
It's called "Mississippi Grind," starring Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn as gamblers who meet in Iowa and then head south through St. Louis and Memphis on their way to New Orleans for a high-stakes poker game. The movie co-stars Sienna Miller and Annaleigh Tipton, with Alfre Woodard in a small role. As a "featured extra," I play a poker player involved in a heads-up hand with Ben's character. The scene takes place in St. Louis, but we shot it in New Orleans.
On Friday, the day "Mississippi Grind" opens, I'll have writer/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck as guests on my KTRS show to talk about the movie (which is already getting pretty good reviews), and the long process of how an idea eventually becomes the final product that you see on the screen.
My involvement in the film goes back more than three and a half years. At the time, I was doing the Final Table Poker Radio Show with Dennis Phillips, and we heard that two filmmakers were coming through town doing research on a poker movie. Dennis was in Las Vegas, so I met Anna and Ryan one afternoon and told them all sorts of stories about playing in casino poker rooms as opposed to home games, the various kinds of players I'd encountered, and what it's like to travel elsewhere to play.
As we talked, Anna took notes, and they especially loved a couple of the stories -- one of which I've shared here. After a couple of hours, we parted ways, but I kept in touch every six months or so to check on their progress as they wrote the script, cast the actors, and acquired financing. I was amazed it took so long, but in late 2013, they told me they were finally going to start filming in New Orleans in February, 2014 -- and if I wanted to be an extra in the movie, they'd be happy to have me.
I'd never been to New Orleans, but I had enough frequent flier miles on Southwest to get a free roundtrip ticket, so I booked a flight and made reservations at an inexpensive hotel not far from where they'd be filming. It was also close to a Harrah's casino that I knew by reputation as a place where I'd have a pretty good chance to get into a loose $2-5 no limit hold'em game and recoup my expenses. I also spent an extra day playing tourist in New Orleans, which I wrote about here.
These are the notes I took during the entire experience of being on the set and having been saving until now to share with you...
We're shooting on the Creole Queen, a paddlewheeler on the Mississippi. I get there at 3:45pm, sign in, fill out vouchers I’ll need later to get paid when the day ends at 3am. Not counting an hour for “lunch” at 10pm, it’s a 10-hour work day, for which I’ll be paid $108.
Brought my own clothes – a suit, shoes, 2 shirts, 2 ties. Costume supervisor Reba didn’t like that my blue dress shirt had button-down collars, gave me one without them. Also had me wear a bowtie.
Anna and Ryan greet me when I get to the set, thank me for coming, and tell me that they used two of the stories I told them in their script. I tell them I was glad to help and thank them for allowing me to be part of their movie. Jeremy Kipp Walker, one of the executive producers with whom I’ve traded e-mails, introduces himself and thanks me for coming, too.
I told Sienna I really enjoyed her in a movie called “Interview” with Steve Buscemi. She replied with a smile, “Oh, you’re the one that saw it! That’s very sweet of you to mention. Thank you.” She told me that the shoot on that movie (which Buscemi directed) only took 9 days, with some shots lasting as long as 20 minutes.
None of today’s shots last that long, but there is LOTS of waiting, mostly for the camera crew and lighting techs to move equipment and set up for each shot. Measuring how far it is from the lens to the person in the closeup, or the cards and chips on the table. Then re-measuring. Then changing the lights a little bit in the foreground, then in the background. Then setting the second camera (most of the time two cameras rolled simultaneously, often right next to each other).
There's not a tremendous amount of makeup on any of the actors (none on the extras), but attention is paid to Sienna’s hair, and regular touch-ups on the primary actors. For my scene, some anti-glare stuff was sprayed on my bald dome and some pancake makeup patted on my forehead.
Anna and Ryan do about a half-dozen takes for each shot – Ryan Reynolds walks through the room, the Steadicam follows him to the bar, where he turns around and interacts with Sienna from across the room. Then they break down and reset to shoot the same thing from behind the bar. Then they reset to get in close on her as she reacts silently to his actions. Then they reset to follow Ben as he sits down at my table, interacts with us, and reacts to what Ryan is doing at the bar.
Ryan and Anna watch everything through a wireless portable video monitor (imagine a double-size iPad) that shows them both cameras at the same time. When they want to give an actor some direction, they always go over and talk to them up close, never from across the table or the room. They’re on the same page about everything, which must make it easier to direct as a team. They also seem to trust their cinematographer, Andrij Parekh, who has worked on Ryan and Anna’s 3 previous movies, “It’s Kind Of A Funny Story” (the first of theirs that I saw, it includes Zach Galifiniakis' debut), “Sugar,” and their 2006 breakthrough, “Half Nelson” (which introduced the world to Ryan Gosling).
The crew also includes assistant directors who keep things under control on the set and make sure everyone is where they’re supposed to be at the right time. There are continuity people who have to make sure that everything is set up the same way at the beginning of each take. This includes using an iPad to photograph every little detail, from how everyone is dressed, to how many chips are in front of each player, to where the champagne glasses are on the table. There are grips and cable pullers and gaffers and lighting techs and a script supervisor who writes down everything said on camera.
In the scene, an older guy is playing piano at the bar. He has to play the same song over and over. After an hour of multiple takes, he’s tired, and the music sounds tired, but there are more takes to do from another angle, so he has to play it again.
Tomorrow: we shoot my scene with Ben Mendelsohn.
Previously on Harris Online...
- My experience in New Orleans when I wasn't on the "Mississippi Grind" set (2/13/14).
- My conversation with Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, writer/directors of "Mississippi Grind" (10/3/15).
- A poker story I told Anna and Ryan which they put in the movie (7/30/13).
- Other poker stories I've told on this site over the years.
Monday, September 28, 2015
The fire on the field before yesterday's Rams-Steelers game served as a good metaphor for what's happened to football in St. Louis recently. The team seems like it's trying, but something always catches fire -- not in a good way -- and causes a burning sensation. I wonder whether the burnt patch of astroturf will ever be fully repaired/replaced, what with Rams owner Stan Kroenke's publicly-expressed desire to move the team to Los Angeles, and the city's plans for a new stadium on the riverfront (which I don't want to be paid for with a penny of our tax money). It's like that hole you kicked in the wall of your den -- probably while watching the Rams lose again -- if you're not gonna live there anymore, why patch it?
posted at 11:34 AM
Sunday, September 27, 2015
Two new additions to my Movies You Might Not Know list today:
"Still Alice" is the story of a linguistics professor who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's at age 50. The movie shows Alice trying to cope with the disease as her memory slips away, and the impact it has on her family. Julianne Moore won an Oscar for her performance, and she's ably supported by Alec Baldwin as her husband and Kristen Stewart as the youngest of her three children. Very moving.
"Deli Man" is a documentary about the shrinking number of Jewish delis in North America. With its repeated shots of corned beef and pastrami sandwiches, homemade matzo ball soup, and menus full of the other delicacies I grew up eating, "Deli Man" made me hungrier than any movie since "Big Night." Though there are a number of legendary New York delis featured (including The Stage, which no longer exists), there's also plenty of attention paid to delicatessens in Toronto, Los Angeles, and particularly Houston, where Ziggy Gruber became the focus of the documentarian's story.
See my entire Movies You Might Not Know list here, and feel free to send me your suggestions.
When I was in high school, I got together with friends every week to play bridge. It was an excuse to sit around, eat frozen pizza, and spend a fun evening together. None of us were great players, but we all knew the basics and some of the subtleties -- none of which I can recall four decades later -- but when I saw this story by John Walters about a cheating scandal that has rocked the world of professional contract bridge, it all came flooding back to me.
The cheating was uncovered in much the same way the Absolute Poker/Ultimate Bet online poker cheating scandal was broken in 2007 -- by players who spotted anomalies in what some players did, making big moves at the right time for the wrong reasons because, as it turned out, they knew which cards their opponents held. Those players then investigated multiple occasions that formed a pattern of odd play taking place, until they had enough evidence to take down the cheaters.
Walters lays out a similar scenario in his bridge story:
When Brogeland had been teammates with Fisher and Schwartz back in 2014, he had once quizzed them about a dubious move that proved advantageous during a match. “Why did you lead a club?” he had asked Schwartz, who replied, “I have to lead my partner’s suit.”Read John Walters' full piece here.
There was no way, at that point in the hand, for Schwartz to have known what Fisher’s long suit would have been. So how did he know he had to go with clubs?
Brogeland returned home to Flekkefjord, where he and his wife, Tonje, undertook the tedious yet engrossing task of watching Fisher and Schwartz win the previous year’s European championships via YouTube. (The ACBL, which oversaw the Spingold tournament, does not post its videos online.) “My average hours of sleep for an entire week was three hours,” he says. “My adrenaline was so pumped up.”
Thanks to a system called VuGraphs, bridge fans and watchdogs are able to see a chart of the complete hands all four players are holding during any one hand (after the match has been played). If an experienced student of the game matches those charts to the videos of the hands, he or she might eventually find a recurring signal being passed between partners, one that correlates to a specific play. “Bridge is a relentlessly logical game,” says Willenken, one of a coterie of top-level players whom Brogeland enlisted to help him uncover Fisher’s and Schwartz’s chicanery. “There’s a three-step process to cracking the code: Look at actions that are illogical; find a disproportionate amount of winning hands preceded by illogical actions; and analyze what is going on in those hands.”
posted at 12:02 AM
Saturday, September 26, 2015
Phil Rosenthal was the showrunner on "Everybody Loves Raymond" for its entire run, but in the decade since it ended, he hasn't done a new TV series -- until now. Here's my conversation with him about his new PBS food/travel show, "I'll Have What Phil's Having," which debuts Monday night.
We discussed his trip to Tokyo (episode 1), in which all his senses were overwhelmed and he even ate eel, as well as taught a family how to make an egg cream. We also talked about how much each of us loved eating in Italy (as he does in the second episode), including how to tell good gelato from bad. And Phil explained why, of all the cities in the world, he chose to visit restaurants in the city he lives in, Los Angeles (with friends Allison Janney, Ray Romano, Martin Short, Larry Wilmore, and Norman Lear).
I've seen the first two episodes via press screeners, enjoyed them a lot, and look forward to more -- and hope he'll eventually do an episode in St. Louis so I can introduce him to frozen custard, toasted ravioli, and the best barbecue he's ever had. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!
Previously on Harris Online...
This week on the showbiz segment of my show, Colin Jeffrey and I reviewed "The Intern," "Hotel Transylvania 2," and "Stonewall." We also discussed how Netflix knows when you like a show, Brian Regan's live Comedy Central special, Trevor Noah taking over "The Daily Show," and more. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!
This week's Harris Challenge -- the most fun you can have with your radio on -- includes categories "John Boehner Is Crying Again," "This Francis Is Not The Pope," and "Famous Falls." Listen and play along, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!
On this edition of Knuckleheads In The News® I have stories about a problem at Taco Bell, a pane in the glass, and an extra point ricochet. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!
Here's the video that goes with the final story today...
Thursday, September 24, 2015
Tomorrow on my KTRS show, I'm going to talk to Phil Rosenthal, who was the showrunner for "Everybody Loves Raymond," about his new PBS food/travel series, "I'll Have What Phil's Having."
Phil was also responsible for one of the titles on my Movies You Might Now Know list, "Exporting Raymond," a documentary about his adventures in Russia when a TV outlet there decided to adapt the Ray Romano sitcom for domestic consumption. And he starred in this short for Funny Or Die...
Wednesday, September 23, 2015
Tuesday night, Ted Cruz was a guest on Stephen Colbert's "Late Show" and got a little bit of heat from the host when he invoked Ronald Reagan's name. For some reason, within the GOP, that's like mentioning Jesus Christ, because they believe that Ronnie was the savior of this nation and never did anything wrong. To his credit, Colbert pointed out two things that Reagan favored that are anathema to today's Republican party -- amnesty for illegal immigrants and raising taxes.
Then the conversation turned to gay marriage, and Cruz said, "Under the constitution, marriage is a question for the states." Colbert corrected him: "It doesn't mention marriage in the constitution." Cruz replied, "That's why it's a question for the states," using the 10th amendment as the basis for his argument. He continued:
I believe in democracy, and I don't think we should entrust governing our society to five unelected lawyers in Washington. Why would you possibly hand over the rights of 320 million Americans to five lawyers in Washington to say we're going to decide the rules that govern you? If you want to win an issue, go to the ballot box and win at the ballot box. That's the way the constitution was designed.Actually, Mr. Constitution Expert, that's not how it was designed at all. We don't all get to vote on every issue of importance in this country. We have a representative democracy, where we elect people who decide the rules. More importantly, Cruz might want to take a review course on Article III of the constitution, which sets up the Supreme Court as the final arbiter of whether laws enacted by states or the federal government are, in fact, constitutional.
When Cruz refers to "five unelected lawyers," he means the Justices (all of whom only got the job after being approved by our elected leaders) who voted in favor of making gay marriage legal across the United States in a 5-4 decision. By Cruz's standards, if marriage were left entirely to the states without the Supreme Court getting involved, it would still be illegal for an interracial couple to get married in Virginia and elsewhere (see the 1974 Loving decision).
The losing side always brings up phrases like "activist judges" or "unelected lawyers" in making these specious arguments. Believe me, every time there's been a 5-4 ruling in favor of something Cruz agrees with, he didn't have a problem with those five lawyers or say a word in opposition.
Moreover, as I have written often, there are certain civil rights -- human rights -- that should never be put to a vote, including the right to marry. Of course Cruz wants everything done democratically, because he's spent his entire life as part of the majority and thus has no idea what it means to be a minority whose rights are at the whims of a larger group.
What Cruz refuses to recognize is that popular opinion on gay marriage has changed dramatically in recent years and, if it were put to a real vote -- not a politically manipulated election, but an honest appraisal of the populace -- his side would come out on the short end. And then he'd have to find another scapegoat to blame.
I wish Colbert would have challenged him on that.
Tuesday, September 22, 2015
In a Vanity Fair interview with Kevin Pang, Teller explains that when he and Penn do a trick like the cups-and-balls-with-clear-cups, they're not doing it to piss off other magicians:
We were taken to task by one magician who came to our show and took a swing at Penn in the lobby for the evil that we were doing. Penn said, “Why don’t we just go to the diner and have a chat?” So this magician sat down with us and said, “All right, whose side are you on anyway?” That’s the fundamental problem with much of magical performance. Merely because a magician is trying to create a moment in which a spectator is astounded, the magicians often conceive of themselves as being in opposition to their audience. That is something Penn and I are violently against. We do not believe the audience is stupid. We believe many, many, many, many -- perhaps most of the audience -- is a great deal smarter than we are. Therefore, they need to be shown the respect to be treated as peers.Later, the subject turns to the hit CW show, "Fool Us," which is the best showcase magic has gotten on television in a very long time. Each week, Penn and Teller try to figure out how the magicians have done a trick, and then explain their understanding in a way that doesn't actually reveal anything to the home audience, but lets the magicians know they know what just happened:
When Penn talks about magic, he tries not to spoil the trick for the home audience—that takes away the fun for people who want to watch it over and over again, or people just delighted by the effect. So Penn deliberately uses jargon terms that will communicate to the magician and to the community of magicians that we do know indeed what’s going on, without wrecking the trick for the home audience.Read the full interview with Teller -- including some insight from Pang on watching "Fool Us" that I agree with completely.
There also really is, precisely, a way to encourage people who are interested in magic to learn more. If we say, “Does the term ‘breather crimp’ mean anything to you?” That takes somebody who might be really interested in card magic to Google “breather crimp,” and they’re going to learn a really cool thing that they might be able to use.
Yesterday, I gave a rave review to a Broadway show I saw last week, "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time." Here's another...
My first exposure to "Fun Home" was on this year's Tonys telecast, when a young actress named Sydney Lucas performed the show-stopping "Ring Of Keys." If the purpose of the Tonys is to sell tickets, this one worked, because the next day, I bought seats to see the show with my mother and daughter, and we went last week.
"Fun Home" is the first musical with a lesbian protagonist, Alison Bechdel, a real-life cartoonist who, in 2006, wrote a graphic memoir in which she looked back at her childhood and, in particular, her relationship with her father, Bruce. He was an English teacher who also ran the family business, a funeral home (thus "fun home"), and was a very demanding dad. The play is filled with Alison's memories of discovering that Bruce was secretly gay and had affairs with several young men before committing suicide -- just a few months after she realized that she, too, was homosexual.
While that may seem dark for a musical, "Fun Home" tells the story with plenty of laughs and emotion. We see Alison at three distinct points in her life -- as a nine-year-old girl, as a college freshman, and as a 43-year-old adult still searching for answers about her father and her youth -- and all three actresses (Beth Malone, Emily Skeggs, and Gabriella Pizzolo) were spot on in their performances. Pizzolo, who was Lucas' understudy, has just taken over the roll of Small Alison and is a great replacement.
I hadn't been in the Circle In The Square theater since seeing Jim Dale's remarkable performance in "Scapino" in 1974 (there's a show that's overdue for a revival!), but having "Fun Home" in that space made it even more intimate, with the audience so close we couldn't help but be drawn into the family. Unlike other musicals, "Fun Home" has its small 7-piece orchestra on the stage, as if they're playing in the next room of the house where most of the action takes place. While the actors don't acknowledge the musicians during the show, there's an extra synergy having them right there.
The show, adapted from Bechdel's memoir by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, isn't told in linear fashion, because memories don't work like that. Thus, we see the adult Alison onstage observing and sketching things she remembers from decades ago as they're acted out for us.
Along with "Ring Of Keys," there are a couple of other standout musical numbers. One is an amusing scene in which Small Alison and her brothers pretend to do a wacky TV commercial for the funeral home ("Come to The Fun Home"). Another is when Middle Alison gets out of bed the morning after her first lesbian sexual encounter to pronounce, "I'm Changing My Major To Joan!"
"Fun Home" went on to win the 2015 Tony for Best Musical, and it's easy to see why. It's an extraordinary piece of theater.
Previously on Harris Online...
Monday, September 21, 2015
I spent most of last week in New York City, visiting my mother and daughter and seeing four shows -- one off-Broadway, three on Broadway shows. Here's my review of one of them.
"The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time" is about Christopher Boone, a 15-year-old English boy with Asperger's Syndrome (or something similar along the autism spectrum; the play doesn't explain which) and a penchant for mathematics, who discovers that his neighbor's dog has been killed. He sets out to investigate and we meet his parents, neighbors, teacher, and other characters in Christopher's life.
Christopher is played by Tyler Lea (who had just taken over the role after the departure of Tony winner Alex Sharp the previous day) and his performance is astounding. He's onstage for the entire production, creating a character that's simultaneously endearing and infuriating. And for much of the first act, Christopher is also assembling a model train set over a large expanse of the stage floor, collecting tracks and miniature houses and trees from cabinets built into the walls. I remember from my youth how frustrating it was to put those track pieces together and get the train to run smoothly over them. I can't imagine having to do that while playing the protagonist in a Broadway production, but Lea pulls it off perfectly.
The nine other members of the cast are very good, too. There are several long stretches where they sit off to the side while Christopher interacts with one or more of them, and times when they leave the stage completely. But when they're in the midst of the action in character, or serving as the mechanisms for Christopher's imagination to help him become an astronaut who walks on the walls, or a plane flying above his hometown, or acting as the floor mat he wipes his feet on or the bowl where he places his keys, they serve as a superb support system in furthering the story.
Since "The Curious Incident" won the Tony for Best Play this year, there will probably be productions put on across the country eventually, but they will need to devise a new production design system to make it work as well as it does at the Barrymore Theater. Those walls, and the floor, look like a giant graph on a blackboard that Christopher draws on with chalk. There's also a high-tech projection and lighting system that adds other effects to what is otherwise a minimal set. The effects design is dazzling, as we move from Christopher's home to the neighborhood to a tube station to a train to London. Any attempt I'd make at explaining further wouldn't come close to giving you a sense of how the stage itself becomes a character in the play.
"The Curious Incident," based on the novel by Mark Haddon, is a unique and thoroughly enjoyable theatrical experience.
Sunday, September 20, 2015
Last night, my wife and I went to see Tony Bennett in concert. Along with Ray Charles, who we saw a quarter-century ago, Bennett is one of the few non-rock music legends I've always wanted to see -- and since he's 89 years old, we realized this was probably our last chance.
Over the course of 75 minutes, Bennett sang a couple dozen songs from the great American songbook (George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, Cy Coleman) while giving a masterclass in how to entertain. Impeccably dressed, he effortlessly moved through each song, leaving a few seconds for applause before launching into the next. Bennett was supported by a quartet of terrific jazz musicians, and he gave each of them ample time to solo while making sure the crowd gave them their due. With a simple hand gesture, or a nod, he encouraged us to appreciate what we were hearing and seeing.
Meanwhile, he sang beautifully, with that unique Tony Bennett phrasing and perfect pitch. After seven decades in the business, this old-fashioned crooner knows how to use his voice so well that, at one point, he did something I've never seen a singer do -- he put the microphone down on the piano and filled the 1,200-seat hall with his voice as he sang "Fly Me To The Moon," with nothing more than soft accompaniment by his guitarist.
After the obligatory "I Left My Heart In San Francisco," Bennett left the stage to a standing ovation, but returned moments later to treat us to a half-dozen more songs. For the close, he said he was going to sing one of his all-time favorite songs, a tune which he'd had to fight his record company to release in 1959 because it was so old. But when it came out, Bennett's version was such a hit that he received a note from Switzerland from the songwriter: "Dear Tony, thank you for resurrecting my song." It was signed by Charlie Chaplin, who had composed "Smile" for his classic movie "Modern Times" in 1936.
Hard to believe that a boy who was 10 years old when that movie premiered is still going strong, still filling seats, and still selling millions of albums in 2015. Tony Bennett is proof that quality and class never go out of style.
I just spent a fun hour listening to Leonard Maltin's latest podcast, in which he talks with Phil Rosenthal, showrunner on "Everybody Loves Raymond," who discusses his upcoming PBS travel/food series "I'll Have What Phil's Having" (it debuts 9/28).
They also talk about Rosenthal's terrific 2010 documentary "Exporting Raymond," about his adventures overseeing a Russian adaptation of the sitcom. As that movie proved, Rosenthal is not just good at getting stories on film, but recognizing where the comedy is. That leads to a discussion of movies about showbiz, including Woody Allen's "Broadway Danny Rose", Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis in "Sweet Smell of Success," and Neil Simon's "The Sunshine Boys." You can listen to Maltin and Rosenthal here.
Saturday, September 19, 2015
Gail Collins on what happens if GOP extremists succeed in closing down more Planned Parenthood clinics:
When Planned Parenthood leaves town, bad things follow. Ask the county in Indiana that drove out its clinic, which happened to be the only place in the area that offered H.I.V. testing. That was in 2013; in March the governor announced a “public health emergency” due to the spike in H.I.V. cases.Read Gail Collins' full piece here.
Sara Rosenbaum, a professor of health law and policy at George Washington University, studied what happened when Texas blocked Planned Parenthood grants and tried to move the money to other providers. Even when there were other clinics in an area, she said, “they were overbooked with their own patients. What happened in Texas was the amount of family planning services dropped. And the next thing that happened, of course, was that unplanned pregnancies began to rise.”
This week on the showbiz segment of my show, Colin Jeffrey and I reviewed "Everest," "Pawn Sacrifice," and "Black Mass." We also discussed female movie stars fighting back about being paid less than their male co-stars, David Letterman's new TV job, and predictions for the Emmy Awards. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!
This week's Harris Challenge -- the most fun you can have with your radio on -- includes categories "Not Gonna Win An Emmy," "Multiple Choice Music Legends," and "It Happened In August." Listen and play along, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!
On this edition of Knuckleheads In The News® I have stories about a Microsoft embarrassment, a burglar's backpack, and a fake phone display. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!
Want more Knuckleheads In The News®? Click here.
Friday, September 18, 2015
Wednesday, September 16, 2015
You're headed to work and someone has stopped in the middle of the sidewalk to have a conversation (either on the phone or with the person next to them), blocking your path. You're on the subway and when the train arrives at your stop, you can't exit because the people trying to enter are in front of the door. The same thing happens when you're trying to get off an elevator -- the inbounders don't realize they can't get on until you've vacated the space, but they stand there nonetheless, in the way.
Even if it's for a few seconds, those moments add up, and when you're in a busy city (any city, not just New York), you encounter far too many of them. There are the tourists who have to take a selfie in front of this landmark or that store. There are the drivers who "block the box" by pulling into an intersection as the light turns red, thus obstructing traffic from flowing through the perpendicular street. There are pedestrians who can't wait for the walk sign to change before barging into the street -- or crowding in from the sides -- to further constrict the flow of vehicles. For every person shouting Ratso Rizzo's "I'm walking here!" there's a counterpart screaming, "I'm driving here!"
The problem is magnified by the cluelessness of the blockers. They don't understand that they're slowing you down on the way to a lunch date, a college class, a commuter train, etc. They're so self-absorbed they don't even budge for an ambulance or fire truck trying to get through the maelstrom -- and those vehicles have a siren that's essentially blaring "MOVE!!!"
My message is simple. In any urban setting, if you want to take a nice, leisurely stroll, go to a park. If you want to look up at the pretty architecture, step to the side. But if you're in the midst of the herd trying to move its day along, get the hell out of the way!
posted at 10:30 AM
Monday, September 14, 2015
Jon Schwarz points out that, adjusted for inflation, Henry Ford was paying employees a minimum wage of $15/hour a hundred years ago and, just like today, all the pundits said it would kill his business and cost jobs...
Ford famously decided in 1914 to raise his workers’ wages to $5 a day while cutting the workday from nine hours to eight. Five dollars in 1914 has the same buying power as $119.32 in 2015. Divided by eight, that’s $14.92 an hour.Read Schwarz's full piece here.
When Ford made his announcement, the New York Times proclaimed that “The theory of the management at Ford Motor Company is distinctly Utopian and runs dead against all experience.” According to the Wall Street Journal, Ford had “committed economic blunders, if not crimes” that would “get riddance to Henry Ford of his burdensome millions” and “may return to plague him and the industry he represents, as well as organized society.”
Instead, Ford had kicked off the age of mass consumption, a huge century-long economic expansion, and the creation of the first real middle class in world history. As Ford later wrote: “We increased the buying power of our own people, and they increased the buying power of other people, and so on and on. It is this thought of enlarging buying power by paying high wages and selling at low prices which is behind the prosperity of this country.”
posted at 12:04 AM
Saturday, September 12, 2015
This week on the showbiz segment of my show, Colin Jeffrey reviewed "The Visit," and we discussed the upcoming "Supergirl" TV series, Ronda Rousey's "Road House" reboot, and the first week of "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert." Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!
Former Missouri state senator Jeff Smith spent 10 months in federal prison in Kentucky for lying to the FBI about a campaign finance law violation in 2004 when he ran for Congress. Now a professor at The New School, Jeff returned to my show to talk about the book about his experiences, "Mr. Smith Goes To Prison." Among the questions I asked him:
- Since you were 5'6" and weighed 120 pounds when you got to the prison, was your first priority befriending some big guys?
- Did that help you avoid problems with other inmates?
- What was your job in prison?
- How did you balance the inmates vs. the guards to insure against trouble with either group?
- Did the prison officials make any effort to help inmates do better once they’re out?
- Did you know inmates who wanted to stay in prison because they’d be worse off outside?
- Is it possible to achieve prison reform when no politician wants to be seen as soft on crime?
- My conversation with Jeff Smith about Jeb Bush trying to continue The Bush Dynasty (12/26/14).
- My conversation with Jeff Smith about "The Recovering Politician's 12 Step Program To Survive Crisis" (8/11/13).
- My conversation with then-state-senator-not-yet-inmate Jeff Smith (1/23/09).
- The documentary "Can Mr. Smith Get To Washington Anymore?" is on my Movies You Might Not Know list.
This week's Harris Challenge -- the most fun you can have with your radio on -- includes categories "Lou's Who Will Not Be At Lou Fest," "9/11 Day Of Disaster," and "You Call That Sports?" Listen and play along, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!
On this edition of Knuckleheads In The News® I have stories about another bad Facebook brag, a woman hiding a gun, and a college student's odd way of getting around. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!
Want more Knuckleheads In The News®? Click here.
Thursday, September 10, 2015
Lawrence Krauss on Kim Davis and putting religious beliefs above the law...
What is sacred to one person can be meaningless (or repugnant) to another. That’s one of the reasons why a modern secular society generally legislates against actions, not ideas. No idea or belief should be illegal; conversely, no idea should be so sacred that it legally justifies actions that would otherwise be illegal. Davis is free to believe whatever she wants, just as the jihadist is free to believe whatever he wants; in both cases, the law constrains not what they believe but what they do.Read Lawrence Krauss' full piece here.
In recent years, this territory has grown murkier. Under the banner of religious freedom, individuals, states, and even -- in the case of Hobby Lobby -- corporations have been arguing that they should be exempt from the law on religious grounds. (The laws from which they wish to claim exemption do not focus on religion; instead, they have to do with social issues, such as abortion and gay marriage.) The government has a compelling interest in insuring that all citizens are treated equally. But “religious freedom” advocates argue that religious ideals should be elevated above all others as a rationale for action. In a secular society, this is inappropriate.
The Kim Davis controversy exists because, as a culture, we have elevated respect for religious sensibilities to an inappropriate level that makes society less free, not more. Religious liberty should mean that no set of religious ideals are treated differently from other ideals. Laws should not be enacted whose sole purpose is to denigrate them, but, by the same token, the law shouldn’t elevate them, either.
posted at 11:40 AM
It's bad enough when you turn on The History Channel and find a reality show instead of something related to history. The Learning Channel gave up on teaching us anything a long time ago. HLN stopped being Headline News outside of morning drive in favor of hour after hour of "Forensic Files" reruns. The Independent Film Channel shows non-indie oldies like "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and "National Lampoon's Vacation." The Sundance Channel shows such off-the-beaten-path movies as "Apollo 13" and "Saturday Night Fever."
In other words, these networks have gotten away from their original concepts to chase the almighty dollars that come with reality shows and cheap movie reruns. It must be working for some of them, but abandoning the core concept has backfired for one of them: The Weather Channel.
As the name implies, that's where you're supposed to turn for weather information, 24 hours/day. The problem is that we now have anytime-access to that data in our pockets -- including from the very popular Weather Channel app -- without the need to turn on our televisions. Sure, you might still tune in when there's extreme weather in your region (or elsewhere, for the rubbernecking fun of seeing Buffalo hit by its annual week-long city-closing blizzard), but it stopped being a part of most viewers' information-input habit.
So, a few years ago, The Weather Channel tried to entice viewers with a new plan -- lifestyle and entertainment shows, like the morning block hosted by former "Good Morning America" meteorologist Sam Champion, or the show that precedes it with "Today" weatherman Al Roker. Big mistake. Ratings tanked. Now comes word that The Weather Channel is dropping both Roker's and Champion's programs, in addition to some of its own reality shows, in favor of focusing on straight-forward weather forecasting and storytelling.
Imagine that. Giving the public what it expects based on your brand name. Next thing you know, MTV will do a show about music.
Wednesday, September 09, 2015
I don't have much to say about Stephen Colbert's "Late Show" debut because it's never fair to judge one of these shows after a single episode. The energy is always way too high (from both host and audience), the months of thought and preparation are bursting at the seams, and everyone has to settle into a style for the long term.
Colbert is a professional, and very talented, but aspects of the show will be tweaked in coming days as he figures out what works and what doesn't. I hope that someone on his staff will discourage the audience from routinely chanting "Stephen, Stephen, Stephen." That worked on his Comedy Central show because his character acted as if he were leading a rally (he said last night, "I used to play a narcissistic conservative pundit. Now I’m just a narcissist."). The CBS version should steer away from that approach.
So, bottom line: way too early to judge, but I'm rooting for Colbert and will record his "Late Show" nightly to watch his progress.
One other note: the "Everyday People" music jam at the end of the show was fun, but it was the sort of thing you do on a finale, not a debut -- and I couldn't identify any of the "special guests" aside from legends Buddy Guy and Mavis Staples. Thankfully, this annotated version appeared online today (though honestly, even after seeing their names, I don't know who some of them are):
Because we're approaching another presidential election, there's been a lot of talk about illegal immigration -- but far too much of what you're hearing is simply wrong, even (or especially) when it comes out of the mouth of presidential candidates. What they don't tell you is that net immigration to the US from Mexico isn't nearly as high as it was 5-10 years ago. The real number: zero.
To get to the facts, I spoke with Douglas Massey, sociologist in the Office of Population Research at Princeton University. He says Donald Trump's border wall is a moronic idea, because the data show that fences don’t keep migrants out — they just keep them from going home.
Among the questions I asked him:
- Are illegal immigrants taking jobs and being a burden on our resources?
- Why do so many Americans believe that’s true?
- What changed that made fewer Mexicans come here? Increased border security? Recession?
- Is the same true for people from Honduras and other Central American countries?
- What effect would removing every undocumented immigrant from the US have on the price of fruits and vegetables?
There's a disturbing trend on American college campuses: an extreme attempt to limit speech that might be offensive. We're not talking about out-and-out racism, sexism, or any other -ism. This is a hyper-sensitivity -- beyond any previous definition of "political correctness" -- that supposedly shields young adults from words and ideas that make them uncomfortable.
Greg Lukianoff, CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, has written about this in the September cover story of The Atlantic. When he joined me on the air, he offered several surprising examples (e.g. avoiding such seemingly innocuous phrases as "America is the land of opportunity" and "I believe the most qualified person should get the job") and explained:
- Two terms I was unfamiliar with: microaggressions and trigger warnings.
- What happens when they get out into the real world?
- Are company HR departments becoming swamped by employees complaining they’re offended?
- How did we get here?
- Are increasingly partisan politics to blame?
- Does labeling a lesson with a trigger warning almost guarantee someone will complain?
Here's my conversation with Swarthmore psychology professor Barry Schwartz, author of "Why We Work." Turns out that the answer isn't as easy as "to make money." We talked about people he has spoken with in all sorts of professions, from teachers to hospital janitors. Among the questions I asked him:
- What percentage of people enjoy or are fulfilled by work?
- Has the way we’re treated by management changed?
- Are white collar people happier on the job than blue collar workers?
- How does the US compare to rest of the world in job satisfaction?
- Is there a higher rate of job satisfaction at companies like Google that spend time designing a better workplace?
- What about people whose work day never ends because they're always available by phone, e-mail, etc.?
Tuesday, September 08, 2015
Monday, September 07, 2015
Sunday, September 06, 2015
In response to my column about poker players who mucked the winning hand because they weren't paying attention, Stuart Snyder emails:
In addition to protecting your cards and not mucking prematurely, even commenting out of turn can cost you. This happened on my last Las Vegas trip:Nice!
I was under the gun with the queen and jack of hearts and limped. The cutoff raised, modestly, and the button and the big blind called. I called, too.
The flop was king of hearts/ten of hearts/eight of diamonds, giving me an open-ended straight flush draw. I checked. Cutoff bet. Button folded. Big Blind (who had at least $400 less than Cutoff and I each had) shoved. I called, and Cutoff made a weird raise, leaving me with $26 after I called. Thus, there was a substantial side pot.
Turn was the 4 of spades. I checked. Cutoff checked. River was the 2 of clubs.
Before I could do anything, Cutoff said, “Argh. I missed.” I hesitated for only a moment and then threw in my last $26. Cutoff quickly folded his ace of hearts/nine of hearts face up.
I lost the main pot to Big Blind’s set of eights, but I won the side pot with king high on the strength of my $26 river bet (and paying attention).
John Oliver is "America's social justice warrior," according to Jason Abbruzzese...
Plenty in the media are willing to take on tough subjects, but none are creating the type of wake left by the H.M.S Oliver. The ripple effects of Oliver's segments can be seen every day on the Internet, where digital media sites have made something of a Monday routine out of posting his segments, which HBO releases for free on YouTube. The practice — part of the online playbook written primarily by Oliver's alma mater, the Daily Show — became so widespread that The Awl began tracking it in their "John Oliver Sweepstakes."Read Abbruzzese's full piece here.
A study by Internet audience tracking company Parse.ly found that Oliver's segments routinely change the amount of attention paid to the topics he addresses, even after the buzz around the segments themselves dies down.
Saturday, September 05, 2015
This is not the most distressing part of the NY Times story about the pillow fight at the US Military Academy:
The fight on the West Point campus turned bloody as some cadets swung pillowcases packed with hard objects, thought to be helmets, that split lips, broke at least one bone, dislocated shoulders and knocked cadets unconscious. The brawl at the publicly funded academy, where many of the Army’s top leaders are trained, left 30 cadets injured, including 24 with concussions, according to West Point.This is:
So far no cadets have been punished, and the academy has no plans to end the annual tradition.This is how we train Army officers to make good decisions and follow the rules?
posted at 5:06 PM
From Brian Doyle:
Kim Davis is not Rosa Parks. Kim Davis is the bus driver if he refused to drive African Americans after the law was changed.While we're on the subject, why is a county clerk elected in the first place? How can voters possibly know whether one person is more qualified to issue licenses than another?
posted at 4:57 PM
This week on the showbiz segment of my show, Colin Jeffrey and I reviewed Robert Redford and Nick Nolte in "A Walk In The Woods" and Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley in "Learning To Drive." We also discussed a new feature of Amazon Prime Video, Will Smith's upcoming "Concussion" movie," Cate Blanchett playing Lucille Ball, and more. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!
This week's Harris Challenge -- the most fun you can have with your radio on -- includes categories "Forbes' Highest Paid TV Actors," "Going Into Labor Day," and "The Name Is Not The Same." Listen and play along, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!
On this edition of Knuckleheads In The News® I have stories about a minivan in a lake, some naked selfies, and a cat lady on a plane. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!
Want more Knuckleheads In The News®? Click here.
Friday, September 04, 2015
After attending this summer's Amazing Meeting, I mentioned that this was probably the last annual event presented by the James Randi Educational Foundation. Now comes this announcement:
Since James Randi's retirement earlier this year, the Board has considered how to continue the Foundation without his direct involvement.Although I expected it, I'm saddened by this news. My wife and I have been staunch supporters of Randi's work since before the JREF even existed, and I was happy to be one of the speakers at the tribute to Randi this summer at TAM. He has always been a unique blend of brilliance, magic, and investigative curiosity, but the fact remains that, at age 87, Randi can't be the global face of skepticism anymore, and there's no one who can replace him or even step into his shoes.
The Board has decided that it will convert the foundation into a grant making foundation.
Starting in 2016, we will be making grants to non-profit groups that we believe are promoting activities that encourage critical thinking and a fact-based world view. We expect to make a small number of grants each year totaling approximately $100,000 per year. We will NOT accept suggestions, applications or proposals for these grants. We hope they will come as a pleasant surprise to the recipients, just as Randi's MacArthur foundation grant was a pleasant surprise to him.
As we will only be making grants in the future, we think it appropriate to stop accepting memberships and donations. Any donations received before December 31, 2015 will be tax deductible.
We plan on continuing the Million Dollar Challenge as a means for educating the public about paranormal claims.
Over the years, we have spent a great deal of time dealing with claims ranging from yet another dowsing claim to some VERY eccentric and untestable claims. The overwhelming majority refuse to fill out the application or even state a claim that can be tested. Some of them show up in person and demand to be tested while they wait. We can no longer justify the resources to interact with these people.
Effective immediately, JREF will no longer accept applications directly from people claiming to have a paranormal power. We will however offer our Challenge to anyone who has passed a preliminary test that meets with our approval. We will provide example protocols early next year. Of course, any established psychic may always contact JREF to be tested directly (preferably with an independent, third party TV crew.)
It's been a great nineteen years and we thank you for your interest and support.
I'm glad that the JREF will continue in some way, but this undoubtedly marks the end of an era. I hope that its impact will continue to spread through the growing skeptic community around the world that it has inspired and educated for the last two decades.
For years, I have been talking about how Saudi Arabia -- not Iran -- remains the biggest threat in the Middle East. With King Salman visiting the White House today (and taking over the entire Four Seasons hotel in DC), this Thomas L. Friedman column hits many of the same points I've made:
If you think Iran is the only source of trouble in the Middle East, you must have slept through 9/11, when 15 of the 19 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia. Nothing has been more corrosive to the stability and modernization of the Arab world, and the Muslim world at large, than the billions and billions of dollars the Saudis have invested since the 1970s into wiping out the pluralism of Islam — the Sufi, moderate Sunni and Shiite versions — and imposing in its place the puritanical, anti-modern, anti-women, anti-Western, anti-pluralistic Wahhabi Salafist brand of Islam promoted by the Saudi religious establishment.Read Friedman's full piece here.
It is not an accident that several thousand Saudis have joined the Islamic State or that Arab Gulf charities have sent ISIS donations. It is because all these Sunni jihadist groups — ISIS, Al Qaeda, the Nusra Front — are the ideological offspring of the Wahhabism injected by Saudi Arabia into mosques and madrasas from Morocco to Pakistan to Indonesia.
And we, America, have never called them on that — because we’re addicted to their oil and addicts never tell the truth to their pushers.