April 12, 2003 · 6:30 PM PDT ·
SO WHY am I down these days on Leno and Letterman? I'll list a couple of reasons here over the next few days but first I
think I have to explain why I never liked Candid Camera — or just about any "hidden camera" shows. Allen Funt used to describe his
little franchise as "people caught in the act of being themselves," but that was a fib. If they acted like themselves, they usually didn't get
on the show. They got on for looking foolish, upset or baffled in what was usually a very artificial, contrived situation. Stunts on
shows like that are always configured such that the target can't help but look silly, and the game, such as it is, is rigged: If by some chance the
person reacts in some dignified way — say, if they demonstrate enough brains to figure out they're being filmed, as many do — the footage
simply doesn't air.
Hidden cameras put unsuspecting folks at a disadvantage, and they give "us" the chance to laugh — usually not with them but at
them. Once when I expressed this view to a producer of one of the many Candid Camera knock-offs, he admitted that it was true but he had
an excuse that he felt absolved him of any guilt. The subjects (he actually called them "victims") all had to sign a release. If they
looked like idiots on national television, that was their fault. For signing the release.
There was some validity to that, and it caused me to slightly modify my objection. Now, it's more to the fact that such shows
exploit some folks' willingness to do anything if it gets them on television — a trait not unfamiliar to viewers of many current reality
shows. But I also think some of the folks caught by "prank" shows are just plain unaware that they don't have to sign the release.
In his autobiography, Charles Grodin wrote of his brief tenure as a deviser and stager-of-pranks for Candid Camera. Funt,
he said, had cautioned him against situations that might snare professional people, folks with actual careers. They had a tendency to not be as
clueless and, when they were, to care about being seen that way. After one too many shoots where no one would sign the release, Grodin was
fired. This happened many times with other operatives Funt employed and he eventually came to rely on a cheaper, easier way to obtain the
footage he sought. It was to pick on the unemployed.
Instead of setting up a gag in a public place, he'd rent an office, slap an innocuous bogus company name on the door, and have a "temp"
agency send over the stupidest people they had who were in need of some minimum wages. It was easier to hide cameras and later, when Funt began
doing shows for cable and cassette, easier to set up stunts that involved nude female accomplices. Best of all (probably) was that the people
who came in had no careers to protect and often weren't all that bright. They also couldn't just storm out the door for fear of not collecting
that much-needed paycheck.
In a few days when I have more time, I'll continue this train of thought and relate it to some of the stunts that now occupy key
positions on the Leno and Letterman shows. I don't like Jay's "Jaywalking" or "Howie Mandel's Hidden Camera," I don't like Dave's "Beat the
Clock" or all those games he plays with folks he keeps at arm's length in Rupert's Deli. And I don't like the way that "let's laugh at jerks"
attitude has infected other parts of both shows. Really, I think both men have forsaken actual, clever comedy material for a lot of bits that
are way beneath them. More on this in a day or three.
April 10, 2003 · 8:00 PM PDT ·
IT'S A DAY LATE but we wanted to wish a Happy Birthday to one of America's great writers of silly songs, Tom Lehrer. On
the zillion-to-three chance that he ever sees this page, we'd like to remind him that the world abounds in people who know all his songs by heart,
and can and will sing them at the slightest provocation. Legend has it that he stopped performing when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace
Prize, and legend is untrue. He actually returned to the world of mathematics long before then — though he did say that, with that award,
political satire became obsolete. Either way, we miss his voice and salute him on his 75th birthday. (That means he's 113 in Base
8. Base 8 is just like Base 10...if you're missing two fingers.)
April 10, 2003 · 12:00 PM PDT ·
MY INTERNET SERVICE PROVIDER is changing again. (I'm talking about the company that connects me to the Internet —
the one that has my neighborhood wired for cable modems. This website is hosted by a different outfit which thankfully doesn't change owners
every twenty minutes.) In the limited time I have been connected directly to the Internet, I've gone from Mediaone to Road Runner to
A.T.&T. and in a month or three, it's gonna be Comcast. Each time, the new company has changed my e-mail address...and you'd think I'd be
used to that by now. Before I got a cable modem, I had an e-mail address @mcimail.com, another @compuserve.com and yet another
@netcom.com. This is all in addition to my addresses @aol.com, prodigy.com and Hotmail. Hard to believe my "whereabouts" on the Internet
could keep changing while I remained in the same chair in the same office.
Even though some (not all) of these companies forwarded mail for a time, it has always been a royal pain in the gluteus maximus
to change addresses. Fortunately, the last few relocations were painless, thanks to my personal domain. For the benefit of a few friends
who don't understand the wisdom of a personal domain, I'm going to explain how this works, and I'll do so with phony names...
Charlie Witznitski has an e-mail address of firstname.lastname@example.org. This was assigned to him when he signed up with
freebish.com, and all his friends know to write to him there. But then freebish.com is acquired by the massive Ferndoc Corporation, and they
announce that everyone's e-mail address is going to have to change to email@example.com. In Charlie's case, since there are already 73
Witznitskis (six of them named Charlie) on ferndoc.net, he winds up with firstname.lastname@example.org, which is even more confusing.
To make sure this never happens again, Charlie goes out and registers the domain of witznitski.com. He declares his e-mail
address will henceforth be email@example.com. Then, with a very simple command at the I.S.P. where he has his domain parked, he sets all
mail that's received at witznitski.com to forward to his real current e-mail address, firstname.lastname@example.org. The forwarding is invisible to
those who write to Charlie. As far as they're concerned, they write to him at email@example.com. Since Charlie owns this, it can be
his permanent address. Next July, when ferndoc.net is absorbed into kreeblat.com and Charlie's local e-mail address changes again, he can just
adjust witznitski.com to forward to the new address. He doesn't have to send out a jillion "change of e-mail address" notices and fear that
some correspondence won't get rerouted at some point.
A further advantage of having his own domain is that Charlie can have an unlimited number of e-mail addresses @witznitski.com. He
can give one address to his friends and another to businesses. When he signs up for mailing lists or has to leave an address with someone who's
liable to send a lot of advertising, he can give them a special address for that stuff. Then he can set his e-mail software to check several
different addresses and to perhaps filter income messages differently. He can have one e-mail address he checks once a week and another he
checks several times a day. He has total control.
Many of you know about this but the other day, I was with someone who was lamenting the latest forcible change of his e-mail address
and the need to send out notices. When I told him about permanent domains, he reacted like I'd cured some chronic disease...so I thought I'd
mention it here in case any of you are similarly unaware and pained. If you're going to set up your own domain, I've been pretty darned happy
April 10, 2003 · 12:30 AM PDT ·
HARD TO BELIEVE it's a bit less than 100 days until this year's Comic-Con International in San Diego. Tens of thousands of
people will be flocking there for just one purpose: To buy copies of a peachy new book which collects a bunch of my old columns about comic books,
and also includes some never-published ones. The book will be on sale there, hot off-the-press and full of wonderful cartoons by Sergio Aragonés. If the line to buy them is anything like the one for the first volume, it will extend out of the convention hall, down the
block and out into the street, ending somewhere in Ensenada, Mexico. You can spare yourself the indignity of having to stand in this queue by
ordering your copy now. That's right! Click here to go to a
page where the nice folks at TwoMorrows Publishing will take your money, sit on it for a few months, then send you a book as soon as they're
released. But all that time, you'll be free to enjoy your life and the convention, secure in the knowledge that your copy of Wertham Was
Right! is assured.
April 9, 2003 · 4:00 PM PDT ·
JUST BACK from a lovely lunchtime birthday bash for Joe Barbera (of "Hanna and...) who turned at least 92 a week or two
ago. The "at least" is because a couple of animation historians in the back were quietly making the case that J.B. is actually older than his
official bio ever claimed. I don't know that it matters. There couldn't have been any more reverence and respect in the hall than there
was. The place was packed with associates, long-time and recent, who came to celebrate the life and longevity of the man who helped invent TV
(By the way: In the photo above, that's Barbera on the left, Hanna
on the right. I'm guessing 1965 or so.)
Present were folks who've known and worked with Barbera for years (Jerry Eisenberg and Iwao Takamoto both spoke) and a bevy of cartoon
voice people: June Foray, Gary Owens, Lucille Bliss, John Stephenson, Casey Kasem, Janet Waldo, Frank Welker, Alan Oppenheimer and others. Most
interesting to me was the vast quantity of writers and artists whose debt to Mr. Barbera was less direct. Yeah, he hired a lot of them or ran
the company that did — but before that, his shows inspired them to want to be in the business and to develop their creative impulses into
actual talents. The place was full of us.
In any case, it was an even grander turnout than they had for Mr. Barbera's alleged 91st
birthday party last year. Tune in next year for a report on the 93rd, and the year after for the 94th. And the year after and the
April 9, 2003 · 4:45 AM PDT ·
I JUST RECEIVED a virus-laden e-mail that was ostensibly
from T. K. Ryan, creator of the very silly comic strip,
Tumbleweeds. I say "ostensibly" because some viruses that come to you
are not really from the person they say they're from. Some "spoof" the
sender's name, and it may be that the person with the diseased computer was not
Mr. Ryan but just someone who had both his e-mail address and mine in their
address book. I've never met Tom Ryan, but I always enjoyed his strip.
And the virus e-mail (which was caught by Norton Anti-Virus before it could
infect my computer) did do some good.
It caused me to visit
www.tumbleweeds.com, where I laughed out loud at several vintage episodes, and got the address to order an autographed copy of the latest
collection. Which I'll do just as soon as I post this and figure out why the hell I'm up and reading old Tumbleweeds strips at 4:45
April 9, 2003 · 1:30 AM PDT ·
ANYONE remember Gary Condit? He was that Congressman that everyone was convinced was guilty of murdering a woman named
Chandra Levy. Lots of people cared passionately about finding Ms. Levy's killer, back when they thought it was probably him — this,
despite the fact that no one in law enforcement ever thought Condit was a suspect. Since her body was found and the evidence never quite
managed to point to the sleazy politician, everyone lost interest in her.
Condit is forgotten but not gone: He's presently suing writer Dominick Dunne over some rather wild, factless accusations in a case that
tests our concept of the First Amendment and what it should and shouldn't protect. John W. Dean has an article about it which you can read by
IF ONE follows the war news — and I'm not suggesting one should do this — one can get whiplash over reports that
keep screeching to a sudden halt. Saddam is dead. Whoops, no — he's alive. But now he's definitely dead. Or maybe he
isn't. No, he's definitely been dead for several days, plus we just killed him again. This guy's been written off for dead more times
than Tom Arnold.
The same thing seems to be occurring with the finding (or not) of so-called Weapons of Mass Destruction. Our troops keep coming
across stashes of what are definitely, absolutely supplies for deadly chemical warfare...until such time as they turn out to be cans of Raid or
I've stopped watching. I'm just assuming that any day now, Saddam will be dead with some finality, and we'll find something that
will justify all the claims that Hussein had something really nasty that he was about to unleash on us. It's like those cops who used to say,
"If I search you for possession of marijuana, I'm going to find marijuana on you — whether it's there or not."
I still have no firm feelings as to whether this war was a good idea, and I'm skeptical of folks who seem to have made up their minds,
one way or the other, based on what they want to see happen to George W. Bush's domestic policies. Clearly, there are those who are vocal on
both sides of the issue who couldn't care less about the liberation of the people of Iraq. They're hoping a victory there will boost Bush's
political stock and allow him to cut more taxes, install more conservative judges, restrict abortion rights, etc. Or they want to see him fall
on his ass so he'll be weakened and easier to defeat in the next election. The latter group has the more difficult position to hold, since a
failure in Iraq could mean a lot of dead and maimed Americans.
Frankly, I think the final verdict on whether it was right and proper to invade Iraq won't be in for years. We'll have to see the
final costs, both in terms of lives and dollars. We'll have to see what kind of reprisals, if any, result. And most of all, we'll have to
see what becomes of Iraq. If it winds up with a government as repressive as Saddam's, then the war will probably have been a colossal
blunder. If it leads to more democracy and liberation, then great.
This seems to me the most logical way to view the situation, but I don't see any pundits or politicians who want to wait. They're
all too eager to see what the war is going to do for American politics. If it does what they want to Bush's approval rating, then they'll be
glad we invaded.
April 8, 2003 · 3:15 PM PDT ·
THIS MORNING on The Today Show, Andrea Mitchell was discussing how, when the time comes, they'll be able to positively
identify the remains of Saddam Hussein. She said that the C.I.A. is in possession of DNA samples from Hussein's son-in-law but cautioned,
"Intelligence sources suggest that may not be a close enough relative to be a match." If that's what the sources are suggesting, they don't
seem to be too intelligent. Wouldn't the odds of identical DNA be a little better with a blood relative?
BY THE WAY: Let's hope Saddam Hussein dies soon. Because an awful lot of Iraqi citizens will, every day we don't have his
head to display on a spike.
April 7, 2003 · 9:30 PM PDT ·
THE MANAGEMENT of this website loves to find articles to which it can link without hesitation. We agree with every word of
this op-ed piece by Paul Krugman in The New York
April 6, 2003 · 8:30 PM PDT ·
I MENTIONED the other day that I thought David Letterman's first show back from his illness
was terrific, and that it did well in the ratings. I saved it on the TiVo, watched it again, and decided I was wrong about the first part: It
wasn't terrific. It was just significantly better than most of the shows Letterman was doing before he fell victim to shingles.
Why? Perhaps because he had something to talk about. The following night, he didn't — and the show was the same tedious, repetitive
offering Dave's been serving us for way too long. The ratings suggest a lot of viewers feel as I do. First night back, Letterman had a
5.3 rating. The next night, he had a 3.4.
Elsewhere on this site, you'll see a number of old pieces wherein I wrote about how much I enjoyed watching both Dave and Jay every
night — and I did. Then. I don't now, and I don't think the problem is that I've changed. I think the problem is that they
haven't: They're both doing the same show, over and over, with no surprises, no twists, no innovations...and rarely with anything new to talk
about. As a longtime lover/student of late night TV, I have some thoughts on why I'm not enjoying either show lately. Over the next few
days, I'm going to be sharing them in this spot.
MY PAL Joseph Laredo sends some thoughts on the ubiquitous Dean Martin record I mentioned here the other day...
Dino's "Ain't That A Kick In The Head" was written for Ocean's 11, and stalled as a single release in 1960 because many radio
stations considered it too suggestive (!). It was included on a two CD career overview entitled "The Capitol Years" that I worked on in
1996. The retro-hipsters who discovered that The Rat Pack was cool some 30 years after the fact hear the flippant Sammy Cahn lyric, note the
movie association, and have decided (in unison, en masse) that they've stumbled upon not merely an overlooked gem, but the sine qua non
of Dino's discography. A similar "feeding frenzy" enveloped Bobby Darin's "Beyond The Sea" a little while back, although that was a Top 10
record in its day.
Interesting. So here's my question: Did Dean ever sing his sine qua non in any venue after he recorded it? He had a
batch of songs in his club act, including "Houston" and "Welcome To My World" and, of course, "Everybody Loves Somebody." On the TV show, he
sang somewhere around a dozen times a week and since Dean didn't rehearse, they seem to have used (and repeated, over and over) songs with which he
was familiar. I don't recall hearing "A.T.A.K.I.T.H." ever on that show, which suggests to me he hadn't been singing it anywhere.
By the way: The discography over at The Dean Martin Fan Center says
that "Ain't That A Kick In The Head" was released as a single on 5/10/60. Like you said, it probably didn't get much air play, and Capitol may
have dumped it quickly, as they did with many records. But it's interesting that even that couldn't kill it. In many ways, Mr. Martin led
a charmed life, and it appears to have extended beyond his passing. One of his flops is being heard more often than most current singers'
ANOTHER PAL, Daniel Frank, notes that Turner Movie Classics is
favoring us with a cavalcade of Harold Lloyd movies. Here's a link to the schedule, and I'll be TiVoing a lot of them, but I would take
issue with Daniel's assertion that Lloyd was "just as funny as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, if not funnier." As much as I like many of
his films, I never felt they were in the same league as Keaton's or Chaplin's best. And, not that Daniel was making this distinction, I always
felt their quality was more because of the writing and direction than the star. Lloyd knew how to hire the best support team and get the best
work out of them. Then he'd — to use a term I've heard comedians use — "perform the hell" out of the material.
But he wasn't all that funny. Chaplin and especially Keaton were fascinating and amusing in how they moved, how they
reacted, how they thought. (One of the keys to being a great physical comedian — and this, Lloyd did have going for him — was that
they have to be able to show you what and how they're thinking.) It's especially amazing to see Keaton in those later, low-budget shorts and TV
shows he made. They aren't that funny but he usually is. He'd find a way to get a laugh from opening a door or swatting a fly.
Lloyd, in order to be funny, had to dangle from a building or accidentally put on a magician's coat.
Ed Wynn used to say, "A comedian is not a man who says funny things. A comedian is a man who says things funny." If you
don't understand what that means, watch a couple of those Harold Lloyd films. They're very entertaining, and you'll have a great time.
But what you'll see is Harold Lloyd doing a lot of funny things. You'll rarely catch him doing things funny.
[UPDATE: I did a slight rewrite on the above at 10:15 PM to fix up some muddy language.]
April 5, 2003 · 2:00 AM PST ·
I HATE WRITING obituaries for this site, but some are rougher than others. This one's about Jackie the Cat, who some of
you may know from her appearances in our My Backyard section. Her story, complete with its sad
ending, is another NOTE from me. Read it at your own risk.
KEEP TRACK of the vital stats of the war over at The Iraqmeter.
And if you'd like to separate some facts from fantasies, go read this
excellent piece over at Spinsanity.
I DON'T KNOW if it's in the movie but the TV commercial for the new Adam Sandler/Jack Nicholson movie Anger Management
uses the old Dean Martin record, "Ain't That A Kick In The Head?" Is it my imagination or is this around the nineteenth movie in the last few
years to employ this recording? It wasn't one of Dino's major hits, and I can't recall ever seeing him sing it on TV. But it's turning up
so often in movies that I have to wonder if there's a reason. Years ago, a rumor swept through the TV business that there was some great
audience demand for the song, "I've Got The Music In Me." It was said that some viewer survey somewhere had determined that people would tune
in for it, or wouldn't tune out, or something of the sort. No one knew who'd done this alleged survey but I guess they all figured it couldn't
hurt, and for about two months, every TV show that needed to select an "up" number was going with "I've Got The Music In Me." Does Mr. Martin's
record keep turning up because filmmakers believe it holds some special magnetism for an audience? Or do they all just like it so much?
THANKS for bearing with me through several days of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup. It's been a busy couple of
days. And here's the usual mention of something you have to spend your money on in a few months...
Click here to read the previous NEWS FROM ME