Tuesday, December 30, 2014

That Wonderful Year in Music... 2014


If I could summarize 2014 as a year in music, the first word that comes to mind is "abundance." This was a very rich year for alternative and hip-hop, maybe the best since 2010. I intentionally heightened the number of new releases I listened to compared to last year, and I still feel like I didn't cover enough ground. Worse yet, it made the process of whittling down the best albums list to 20 a even tougher task than usual.

BEST ALBUMS:

1. St. Vincent, St. Vincent. Not to be confused with the recent Bill Murray movie of the same name, the genius of Annie Clark saw its audience increase tenfold with her fifth studio effort. Her 2012 collaboration with David Byrne Love This Giant confirmed she was the heir apparant of the former Talking Heads frontman, as her accessible art-rock is a rare breed. The sound is more pop than her previous work, yet Clark's razor-sharp wit seems even more vicious underneath the candy-coated production.
2. Run the Jewels 2, Run the Jewels (Killer Mike and El-P). Not a single beat is wasted on this unlikeliest of sequels. The first Run the Jewels, released in mid-2013, was a pleasant lark, but no one anticipated a sequel that was so immediate, yet fluid and filthy. Killer Mike and El-P are established hip-hop MCs on their own, but together they destroy worlds.
3. Lost in the Dream, The War on Drugs. To anyone who dismisses indie-rock as millennial prattling, I want you to meet Adam Granduciel. The Philly-based musician, who co-founded TWOD in the mid-2000s with Kurt Vile, then kept the band going after Vile went solo four years ago, has fully matured as a songwriter on Drugs' captivating third album. This is 21st century blue-collar, and the callbacks to Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen are both earnest and justified.
4. Burn Your Fire For No Witness, Angel Olsen
5. Salad Days, Mac Demarco
6. Pinata, Freddie Gibbs & Madlib
7. Benji, Sun Kil Moon
8. Manipulator, Ty Segall
9. Here and Nowhere Else, Cloud Nothings
10. Are We There, Sharon Van Etten. Over in Brooklyn, an old pal and hired hand of Neko Case's is turning into a formidable singer-songwriter in her own right. Two years after Tramp and the AAA radio hit "Serpents" first made people aware of Van Etten, There makes the case that she's no fluke. This woman has suffered for her art, yet beneath each confession is a parable.

11. My Krazy Life, YG
12. Oxymoron, Schoolboy Q
13. Atlas, Real Estate
14. Nikki Nack, TuNe-YaRdS
15. Morning Phase, Beck. On the surface, Beck's first studio album in six years is a kindred spirit and sequel to 2002's Sea Change. At heart, this thoughtful disc has more in common with 1998's Mutations; the sound is relaxed, but the lyrics are more melancholy than sorrowful. Anyone expecting a return to his goofier, funkier side should keep waiting; this exercise into Nick Drake-type country-rock might be his most intriguing reinvention yet.
16. They Want My Soul, Spoon
17. Sukierae, Tweedy
18. Lazaretto, Jack White
19. Turn Blue, The Black Keys
20. Sun Structures, Temples. One of the most fun listens of '14 came from this quartet of '60s-obsessed British lads. The leadoff single "Shelter Song" sounds like a long-lost track from Nuggets. Their obsession with making everything sound like 1967 might have gotten in the way of giving these up-and-comers any personality, but Structures is so trippy and energetic that it almost doesn't matter.

Best Import: The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, Courtney Barnett. Not so much a debut album but a pairing of two EPs released in her native Australia in 2012-13, Barnett made ripples in American indie-rock circles in 2014. If Stephen Malkmus (of Pavement and Jicks fame) had a long-lost Aussie niece, she'd sound a lot like Barnett; her stoner-slacker deadpan adds wit to "Avant Gardener" and "History Eraser," two songs that play like compelling short fiction. Her first proper full-length is due out in early 2015, and fingers crossed it'll make next year's Top 20.

Best Jazz Album: Last Dance, Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden. The second release culled from a 2007 session between these two old friends, this collection of tunes feels more like a cohesive album than 2010's equally atmospheric Jasmine. The peculiar, curious intro to Monk's "Round Midnight" reveals an affection for the melody I don't think I've heard in any other rendition. (Also, RIP Charlie Haden, bass virtuoso.)
Honorable Mention: Kin, Pat Matheny Unity Group.

BEST SINGLES:

"Coming of Age," Foster the People
"Supernova," Ray Lamontagne
"This is a Game," Nick Waterhouse
"Don't Wanna," Howler
"Fall in Love," Phantogram
"Hot and Cold," Ex Hex
"Uptight Downtown," La Roux
"American Horror," Speedy Ortiz
"Violent Shiver," Benjamin Booker
"War on the East Coast," The New Pornographers
"From Eden," Hozier
"Left Hand Free," Alt-J

BEST VIDEOS:

1. "Take Me To Church," Hozier. This video first dropped just under the wire late last year, but "Church" (the single and the clip) both blew up in mid-2014. The lyrics about suicide and Catholic guilt meshes eerily well against the haunting hate crime of the video.
2. "Chandalier," Sia. It's all about that dance.
3. "Seasons (Waiting on You)," Future Islands. A viral hit twice over: this rodeo-centric, documentary style clip gain just as much attention as their operatic performance on the Late Show last March.
4. "Fever," The Black Keys. Hey, remember tele-evangelists?
5. "Babylon," SZA. Speaking of overt religious themes, this R&B singer decides the only way she can absolve herself is by self-baptism in a pond.
6. "Crime," Real Estate. This was a breakout year for former MADtv cast member Andy Daly, who plays the "auteur" director of the most clusterfucky video ever made. You know before you hear the song that it's going to be chaos.
7. "Water Fountain," tUnE-yArDs. A recreation of a typical Tuesday evening at Merrill Garbus' house.
8. "Thirst," Every Time I Die. Imagine an episode of "Broad City" taken over by two speed-metal dickbags from the Great Plains, and that's pretty much this video.
9. "Low Key," Tweedy. Shot in and around Chicago, this father/son Wilco spinoff is desperate to sell some records. Look for appearances from Conan O'Brien, Andy Richter, and in one of her last film appearances, veteran Windy City stage actress Molly Glynn.
10. "7/11," Beyoncé. In accordance with the Federal Beyoncé Act of 2013, all music video best-of lists must include at least one clip from Bey. This on-the-fly, yet slickly edited home movie should meet the quota.

Honorable Mention: "The Writing's On the Wall," OK Go. This group has had so many inventive videos, I'm ready to cry uncle.

Your thoughts?

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Cuban Slide, or One Last Political Blog for 2014

My latest year-in-music blog is still a work in progress, so here's a quick topical dispatch:

I'm convinced that Cuba is on the verge of collapse. This week's historic decision by President Obama to reopen diplomatic ties after a 55-year hiatus was daring, perhaps even partisan, but also potentially a cry for help. This is a country without a strategic lifeline, no world power to back them up. Beyond the elderly, frail Fidel Castro and his 85-year-old kid brother Raul, there is no clear order of succession in the event either were to pass away. Communism in the Caribbean has five years left, tops. Castro lived enough to see his regime thrive (briefly) and slowly watch it die as other Communist powers were leveled out for democracy. Cuba is at our mercy, and Obama knows it.

On the surface, ending the Cuba embargo is a gift to the GOP, the final wrapped box on the right-wing Christmas that was 2014. Florida has an abundance of Cuban refugees and their progeny; they are mostly (but not overwhelmingly) Republican, and known for having long memories. Sen. Marco Rubio, a son of refugees in his own right, declared the move foolish. In contrast, fellow Republican and Libertarian golden boy Rand Paul called the move savvy, and the beginning of the end of a policy that never worked to begin with. It's a fascinating clash between the pragmatist and the hardliner, between a man whose politics was defined by the brutal regime of his parents' homeland against a strategist who wants to leave the Cold War behind. If Rubio wants to remain hawkish, that's his risk to take, and one that could either help or hinder him if he chooses to run for president in 2016.

(465)

Thursday, December 11, 2014

2014 in Review, Part One

Something about 2014 just felt... lousy. With three weeks to go in the year, it seems like I can remember two negative moments in the year for every positive memory. I had a half-dozen friends and acquaintances get married this year, but just as many get divorced. On a personal level, I struggled to find stable employment as I accepted one crummy temp job after another. If you were an Illinoisan with any interest in politics, you lost both an iconic liberal (former Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne) and a respected moderate conservative (recently reelected State Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka). On a national scale, this was a bad year to be a Democrat and a feminist. On an international scale, Malaysian Airlines and most of Ukraine would like to pretend '14 never happened. The miraculous World Series run made by my beloved Kansas City Royals, 29 years after their last postseason and championship, was hampered by the possibility that it might be another three decades before it happens again.

This has also been a tough time to write topical humor. For the better part of two weeks, the most dominant news story has been about a African-American killed by a police officer under ambiguous circumstances. Some topics are just off-limits, and in a situations like Ferguson, MO and Staten Island it's almost impossible and just about tasteless to try joking about it. No matter what your stance is on the subject, this topic has a very limited angle for satire.

Additionally, this has been a rough year to be an SNL fan. The show's 40th anniversary --which will be celebrated as a prime time event in February 2015-- has been overshadowed by frustration and tragedy. This past summer saw the passings of cast member Jan Hooks and longtime announcer Don Pardo, and even though Robin Williams wasn't best known for being on the show, he was a frequent host in the 1980s. Not to be overlooked is the truck accident that nearly killed Tracy Morgan, a tragedy that was more serious than we originally thought. Least of all, the current state of the show could best be described as fledging; a whirlwind of cast changes in the last three seasons has a left a young, unproven ensemble still finding its voice. The biggest problem spot of all is Weekend Update, where the deer-in-the-headlights glances of head writer/co-anchor Colin Jost reminds us that some people should just stay behind the scenes.

So what did I enjoy this year? I'll discuss that in my next two blog posts.

Next Week: the year in music, 2014.

Friday, November 28, 2014

That Wonderful Year in Music... 2004 (again)


Boy, it feels like it's been forever since I posted a "year in music" blog. It's been over a year yet it feels like longer. At the same time, I ran out of years to cover and my primary focus as been to make my 2014 list as comprehensive as possible. The project was finished business... or so I thought.

I'll admit-- I kind of screwed up my 2004 and 2005 lists. They were among the first music blog entries I ever posted, and I didn't approach them with the care and research of my later posts. At the same time I didn't want to constantly second-guess all of the lists I posted, tempting as it may be, which is why I'm limiting myself to these two years. This week's entry will cover 2004, and I'll post a 2005 sometime early next year. (You can find my original list here.)

In hindsight, 2004 was not the strongest year for music, but it was watershed in some ways. With the iPod introduced a year earlier, '04 was the last year retail music outlets like Sam Goody, Tower Records, and Coconuts turned a profit. As I pointed out the first time around, it was a good year for comebacks; some of the most noteworthy recordings were released by established, albeit long-dormant artists. One such legend, the incomparable Ray Charles, passed away just before his life's work could be appreciated for a new generation. And yet, arguably the best new release of 2004 was a debut full-length by one of the most important bands of the past decade. Rock as a genre was irreversibly splintering, but underneath all the scenester turmoil were quite a few solid releases.

NOTE: Parentheses note previous ranking.

BEST ALBUMS:
1. Funeral, Arcade Fire. The most glaring misfire on my previous list was right on top. I originally picked American Idiot as #1, but Billie Joe Armstrong's rock opera aspirations don't totally hold up a decade on. In picking Funeral I'm correcting a gross oversight; this album is far more daring, direct, and (perhaps) dangerous than the vast majority of the indie scene ten-odd years ago. The "Neighborhood" suite that dominates the first half of the album is an exploration of the soul by way of Joseph Conrad, but tracks like "Crown of Love" and "Haiti" balance the self-relection with whimsy.
2. A Ghost is Born, Wilco. A warmer and more organic companion piece to their 2002 masterpiece Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco's fifth album retains most of its predecessor's ghostly song structures even if the best tracks don't stand out immediately. In some ways, it's Foxtrot's sequel played at the wrong speed; the 15-minute dirge "Less Than You Think" gives way to the charming, witty "The Late Greats," one of the best songs in their discography.
3. The Grey Album, Danger Mouse. (2) Largely because of music licensing entanglement, the phenomenon of mash-up songs --or in this case, mash-up albums-- was relatively short-lived. This remix release, arguably what vaulted DM from moderately respected producer to hipster demi-god, set the bar high for its concept and purpose. In splicing Jay-Z's vocals with the instrument tracks from The Beatles' otherwise untouchable The White Album, DM does the impossible and makes this curious pet project into a must-listen. Case in point: the frustrated "What More Can I Say" simmering over the piano and acoustic guitar of "While My Guitar Gently Weaps."
4. Louden Up Now, !!! (3)
5. American Idiot, Green Day (1)
6. Good News for People Who Love Bad News, Modest Mouse (4)
7. Hot Fuss, The Killers
8. The College Dropout Kanye West (5)
9. Bows and Arrows, The Walkmen (6)
10. Franz Ferdinand, Franz Ferdinand (8). Four Scottish boys with a yen for Paul Weller make a lot of noise with their first full-length, the beginning of a string of good-but-not-great releases in the decade to come. The leadoff single "Take Me Out" is guarded optimism that veers into sheer drama; is it one song that morphs into another kind of song, or a false intro that exposes its true nature when the veneer self-destructs?

Honorable Mentions: ONoffON, Mission of Burma (9); Get Away From Me, Nellie McKay (7); Our Shadows Will Remain, Joseph Arthur (11); You're a Woman, I'm a Machine, Death From Above 1979; Madvillainy, Madvillain.

Best Jazz Album: Song for the New Man, David "Fathead" Newman. The career resurgences were not limited to pop or rock, as this late-period effort by the former Rayette proves. A venerable tenor sax player of the Gene Ammons variety, Fathead could also play a mean flute, as his Herbie Mann homage "Passing Through" proves. This well-rounded, straight-ahead set also features pianist John Hicks, trombonist Curtis Fuller, and another understated legend, drummer Jimmy Cobb.

BEST SINGLES:
"Vertigo," U2
"Walk Idiot Walk," The Hives
"C'mon C'mon," The Von Bondies
"Take Your Mama," Scissor Sisters
"Now Here is Nowhere," The Secret Machines
"She Wants to Move," N.E.R.D.
"Banquet," Bloc Party
"Portions for Foxes," Rilo Kiley
"Torture," King Khan & The Shrines
"Pressure Point," The Zutons

BEST VIDEOS:
1. "Float On," Modest Mouse. Sometimes a band tries desperately to escape whatever turned them into a left-field commercial success. This is one such example; a catchy song with a pop-up book-inspired video, "Float On" went from charming indie rock lark to top ten hit to Applebee's background music in quick procession in Spring 2004. In a new light, this song (and video) is not as annoying as you thought.
2. "Jesus Walks" (version 1), Kanye West. Yeezy was another 2004 breakout, and though the self-deprecating survival story "Through the Wire" was a fine debut single, "Jesus" was what made Kanye... well, Kanye. The desert-set second version merited MTV airplay, but the church-happy first version of the video is the most striking. In the wake of the latest round of violence in Ferguson, Missouri the blunt truth of Kanye's rhymes couldn't be more timely.
3. "Walkie Talkie Man," Steriogram. (1) Felt and clay and yarn, oh my!
4. "Pony Ride," Bumblebeez 81. (3) Sometimes good hype just isn't enough to make a lasting impact. This weird little nugget is true ear candy, a hip-hop/garage rock lark performed by a brother-and-sister act that won an Australian reality show. Bumblebeez is long gone (I assume) but their cartoon bobbleheads remain.
5. "99 Problems," Jay-Z. (2) When was the last time a video was banned (or almost banned) from MTV? Probably this one, which aired in the wee hours of the night with a violence disclaimer. It's a powerful clip, even if Hova's retirement turned out to be just hot air.

Honorable Mentions: "Ocean Breathes Salty," Modest Mouse; "Mr. Brightside," The Killers; "Reptilia," The Strokes.

Your thoughts?

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

My Tenth Annual Thanks/No Thanks List

Wow, Thanksgiving again? As cliche as it sounds, 2014 has really flown by. Additionally, a hectic schedule bolstered by back-to-back temp gigs with odd hours and long commutes makes you appreciate what little down time you have during the week. I've been staying busy, and even though I don't know if I'm truly accomplishing as much as I'd like to, I look forward to relaxing during this four-day weekend.

As such, I started my Thanks/No Thanks list in November 2005 and I can't think of this time of year without writing one. I use it to timestamp my goals, achievements, and general thoughts in any given year, without need for context. Here goes:

This year I give Thanks to my health, my family, the staggering progress of the marriage equality movement, the Chicago improv community, and (of course) your 2014 American League Champion Kansas City Royals.

With that said, I give a hearty No Thanks to credit card debt, cable news, old friends and classmates that never answer their messages, co-workers that won't shut up about politics, and pretty much any Chicago sports team that isn't the Blackhawks.

Next Week: the year in music, 2004. I promise.

(462)

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Hunt for Red November

Some final (albeit belated) thoughts on the 2014 midterm elections:

It's not terribly clear to me how Bruce Rauner plans on steering Illinois in the right direction, but all the power to him. His defeat of incumbent Pat Quinn for the governor's seat ended 12 years of Democratic reign, and possibly a dozen years of unfocused state GOP politicking. What should have been a runaway victory against an unpopular incumbent came right down to the wire. Rauner's nearly fatal flaw was assuming just being "the other guy" was enough to seal Quinn's fate, and indeed, his stance on a variety of issues was oddly vague until the last five weeks of the campaign. And, as Rauner himself admitted, if we don't like it we can boot him in 2018.

So what triggered the Democrats' trouncing in the election? Even though they share the views on several social issues with a narrow majority of Americans --including most crucially, marriage equality-- the 2014 midterms were both a referendum on President Obama and the ineffectual and sometimes polarizing presence of the party powers that be (Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, etc.). The President has had a brutal second term, partially his fault and partially out of his control, and exasperated voters made their say. The kinda-sorta GOP landslide not only evokes 1994's "Republican Revolution" but serves as a mirror image to the butt-kicking the Democrats handed their competitors to the right in 2006 and 2008.

The Republicans made fewer mistakes as well; there was no Todd Akin/sexual assault blunder to set a disastrous domino effect into motion. On the flip side of that is the misconception that the GOP is unilaterally pro-life and wary of Planned Parenthood. Most of the defined pro-choice candidates lost, but the Republicans that support women's health matters (caveats or concessions or not) are usually stifled by the social right, not necessarily a majority of the party but a crucial line of financial needs and manpower. Alas, the social-right motormouths from the deep red states will get a more substantial chunk of our (and the media's) attention, and the influence of lobbyists and Grover Norquist-type policy wonks will ensure the impression that the GOP is in lockstep on all social issues.

Other random notes:

+ At least the 2014 World Series came down to the last strike on the last out in the bottom of the ninth. My thanks to the Kansas City Royals for a fun postseason; it wasn't perfect, but it was worth 29 years of waiting.

+ Have you checked out Stu News yet? It's not nearly as political as this blog, but it'll certainly put a smirk on your face in the morning.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Some Final Thoughts on the 2014 Midterm Elections

With less than three weeks until Election Day, two conclusions are taking hold. First, early estimates of low turnout suggest that voter apathy is alive and well. Secondly, the polarized state of American politics, especially as President Obama enters his last two years in office, is more shrill and viable than ever. As with any election, the well-financed men and women that are jockeying for position are a melange of dolts and schemers, liars and dreamers. Even the most idealistic candidate can be worn down by the meat grinder of our legislative branch.

If you're an Illinoisan, you have plenty to be exasperated about. In fact, for as long as I've been a registered voter I don't think our state has had a major party candidate for governor that was worth voting for. The license-for-bribes scandal that ended George Ryan's political career gave way to six ignoble years of Rod Blagojevich, which begat six years of incumbent Pat Quinn. Of this sorry bunch Quinn was probably the least embarrassing. Accusations of corruption have been unfounded --right-wing conspiracy theorists have tried to connect Blago to his reluctant second in command and vice versa, with limited success-- but Quinn's doddering, in-over-his-head performance as governor should offer limited hope for a second full term. The Republican's answer, multimillionaire Bruce Rauner, would have a commanding lead over Quinn if not for several character flaws: he's been perceived as alternately out-of-touch, bullying, and coasting. Rauner is a pro-choice, pragmatic Republican in a state where moderate "collar county" conservatives have more sway than any other right-wing faction. (I thank my lucky stars that the Tea Party has never found a foothold in Illinois, Joe Walsh notwithstanding.) Just being "the other guy" is not enough, so it seems.

Where the governor's race is saturated with schadenfreude, the Illinois U.S. Senate race almost plays like satire. The incumbent is the prominent (read: powerful) Democrat Dick Durbin, and his challenger is ice cream magnate and perennial candidate Jim Oberweis. It's essentially a battle between a candidate who's out of touch with voters versus a candidate who's out of touch with reality. Nevertheless, Durbin is the #2 Democrat in the higher chamber, and CPACs will keep pumping money into the Oberweis campaign to oust a Washington top dog, no matter how lousy or delusional a candidate like Oberweis might be.

The problems that face my home state will not be fixed overnight. The Land of Lincoln has made social progress in recent years (yay, marriage equality!) but seems stagnant in every other aspect. In a way, Illinois is a microcosm of what ails the United States as a whole: partisan bickering, extreme ideologies, shortsighted ideas. What happens in the last two years of Obama's administration likely won't change much; the GOP is expected to reinforce their control of Congress, and though they will gain seats in the U.S. Senate they won't seize the majority. Basically, another two years of gridlock.
In summation, I'm writing this year's election rundown slightly earlier than usual to implore anyone reading this to register to vote and express your voice on November 4th.  A voter turnout of 3.5% percent means 96.5% of the population will lose their right to complain about the next two years. If you have a problem with what's going on this country, then put pen to hand and speak your mind.

(460)

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Royal Pains

Anyone who’s known me for a reasonable amount of time will attest that I am a lifelong and long-suffering Kansas City Royals fan. For the vast majority of the time I’ve been a fan, there really hasn’t been much to brag about. Growing up in the southwest Chicago suburbs, reactions from other baseball fans --about 50% White Sox, 45% Cubs, 5% “other”-- ranged from ridicule to confusion to pity. With the Royals becoming the Cinderella of the 2014 playoffs, earning them the temporary title of America’s team and sentimental favorites against the thriving San Francisco Giants, my noted fandom has experienced unheard-of levels of euphoria. And yet, I’ve never really explained at length why I root for the Royals.

My paternal grandmother’s family moved from Jefferson Parish, Louisiana to Kansas City in the mid-1910s. Even though my father’s family bounced between KC, St. Louis, and LaGrange, IL for much of the 1940s and 50s, my grandmother’s brother and two sisters hewed close to KC. When Grandma Sara died in July 1993 my family flew out to the Emerald City for her funeral, the first of several trips I would take between then and 2001. It was during this first trip that I would grow acquainted with the surviving members of Grandma Sara’s side of the family, especially her older sister Beatrice. “Aunt Bea” was ten years Sara’s senior; she was 12 years old when the family left the Deep South; my grandma, the baby of the family, was 25 months old. Because of that, Bea spoke with a lilting, Eudora Welty-type southern drawl while Sara spoke with a very slight Great Plains twang.

Growing up mostly with my mom’s side of the family --unabashedly blue collar, salt of the earth Chicago Polacks-- to meet these college-educated, somewhat WASPy, middlebrow social climbers was a little alien to me. My father’s sister had a bigger house than most of my mother’s relatives, but I never dwelled on it too much. I found it hard to relate to my mother’s side of the family; I’m more urban than agrarian and I’m not very outdoorsy; in a family of mechanics and custodians, I was more concerned with getting an education than picking up a trade. I wanted to strive more than live modestly within my means. I saw that in Aunt Bea, who was a socialite in her prime and was still graciously hosting whomever would visit her townhouse as she approached her 90th birthday. Incidentally, she was also a Kansas City Royals fan, with a swooning affection for their aging star George Brett.

Kansas City in 1993 was a lot different than KC now. When the Royals won their first championship in 1985, the city was at rock bottom; the farms were dying, and the economic strife in the heartland trickled up to the cities, where businesses were shuttered and unemployment was at record levels. With their NBA team moving to California and the Chiefs middling at best, the Royals’ come-from-behind defeat of the Cardinals in the World Series was just the morale booster the city needed. Eight years later, KC was faring slightly better but not out of the woods just yet; the urban renewal of the mid-to-late 1990s was in its early stages. The Royals hadn’t made the playoffs since then (obviously), but they were consistently first-division and at worst a .500 ballclub. The Royals were consistently good but seldom great, and with my interest in sports just beginning to bloom, this piqued my interest. My mom’s family were mostly Cubs fans, and their almost delusional devotion just didn’t make sense to me.

With our first World Series appearance in 29 years on the horizon, my pride is usurped by a desire to gloat. After decades of mismanagement, small-market budgeting, lousy scouting, squandered draft picks, and all-around irrelevance my beloved Royals are back in the promised land. Regardless of what happens in the 2014 World Series, I will remain just as proud of my favorite baseball team as I was when they consistently lost 100 games a year. Their improbable playoff run has been a thrill to watch, and I assure you that this displaced Royals fan will spend this year’s Fall Classic glued to a TV set.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Legacy of Jan Hooks

With Saturday Night Live approaching its 40th anniversary this year, it's hard to fathom that we're inching closer to the prospect of seeing former cast members of old age. With the exception of World War II veteran Herb Sargent (who passed in 2008), the "In Memorium" reel is filled with actors and writers that died much too soon. Earlier this week Jan Hooks, one of the greatest female cast members in the show's four-decade history, died suddenly at age 57. Hooks had been sick for some time, though her illness has not been disclosed. A New York City resident since the early 1980s, this eulogy was probably the best I've read in the days following her passing.

If I had to pick my five favorite all-time female cast members, in chronological order I would choose Gilda Radner, Nora Dunn, Hooks, Amy Poehler, and Kristen Wiig (though Wiigy's spot is in close danger, thanks to current cast member Kate McKinnon). We all know Poehler is a bona fide TV star and Wiig's fledging movie career has already seen its ups and downs, the first three women on this list are known predominantly, if not almost exclusively, for their work on SNL. Much has written and said of Radner's influence on comedic actresses in recent decades, but people either intentionally ignore or overlook her very underwhelming career after Studio 8H. In fact, Radner might be the first alumni to be dismissed as "well, she was funny on SNL..."

From that perspective, Hooks' career trajectory is not dissimilar to Radner's. Like her frequent partner in crime Dunn, Hooks was a linchpin of what I usually refer to as the Renaissance era of SNL, part of arguably the greatest and tightest ensemble in NBC's veritable sketch comedy show. Where Dunn alienated the show's producers (including her ex-boyfriend, Lorne Michaels) by refusing to share a stage with host Andrew Dice Clay --and after a PR fiasco, was soon fired-- Hooks left on her own volition after five years. And yet, both Radner and Hooks spent their first post-SNL decade in the wilderness, Radner with questionable and often mediocre film projects, Hooks relegated to work as a character actress. Her greatest champion was fellow SNL alum Martin Short, who cast Hooks as his wife on both his short-lived self-titled sitcom as well as various projects with his alter ego Jiminy Glick. It wasn't until various medical issues in the mid-2000s forced Hooks to stop striving for elusive stardom.

So why did Radner, Dunn, and Hooks all struggle? Movie stardom was an attainable goal, yet it never really happened (assuming Dunn did not inadvertantly burn bridges for the Diceman episode). Of course, you could say the same thing about the entire Renaissance cast; Dennis Miller is infinitely stronger at stand-up than acting, Dana Carvey pulled a Radner and attached himself to some lousy scripts, and Kevin Nealon, Jon Lovitz and Phil Hartman found steady work in supporting roles. One could argue in hindsight that these actresses were overshadowed by their male co-stars, a viable argument given the "boys club" reputation SNL had through the mid-1990s. There was a misogynistic pecking order, and Dunn, Hooks, and Victoria Jackson took their place near the back of the line. Radner loved John Belushi like a brother and he seemed to recipricate the affection, but I doubt they ever saw each other as true equals.

Glass ceilings and internal sexism aside, Jan Hooks will go down as an all-time great in the SNL annals and one of its most underrated and underappreciated talents. She was a consumate team player, a star that shined both individually and alongside the extrordinary talent SNL incubated in the late 1980s. Outside of late Saturday nights, she was a versatile and clutch supporting actress, doing memorable work on TV series like "Designing Women," "Third Rock from the Sun," "The Simpsons," and "30 Rock." She accomplished quite a bit in 25-plus years as a working actress, and I hope her passing offers a fresh and positive perspective on a talent gone too soon.

(458)

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Groot & Reboot: My SNL Review of Chris Pratt/Ariana Grande (9/27/14)

For the second summer in a row, the SNL offseason was a busy and tumultuous one. Last year's decision to overpopulate the cast fell just short of disaster; of the six new hires that we met in Tina Fey's monologue, only Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney survived a caustic but necessary bloodletting. They join midseason hire Sasheer Zamata and co-head writer Colin Jost as the only Year 39 newbies to see their sophomore year. After five years of mostly thankless supporting roles, followed by a belated breakout of sorts in 2013-14, Nasim Pedrad left the cast for sitcom stardom. Joining the ranks in 2014-15 is Year 39 writer Michael Che (the first African-American Weekend Update anchor ever) and stand-up comedian Pete Davidson (the first cast member born in the 1990s, and only the third Latino in show history). The most obvious change of all was also the most tragic; announcer Don Pardo, who announced the opening credits for all but one season until last May, died of natural causes in August at age 96. His successor is former cast member Darrell Hammond, who I'm sure will resurrect his Bill Clinton impression as the Decision '16 picture clears up.

As SNL enters its 40th season (oy gevalt) expect past and present to converge and cross paths many times in the coming months. The next two scheduled hosts are cast alumni, one of the best and most beloved cast members of the past decade (Bill Hader) and one who had a single, nondescript season as a featured player and writer (the great Sarah Silverman). Tonight's show, however follows the pattern of booking the star of the biggest movie of the summer as well as the performer of the current #1 hit in the country. "Parks & Recreation" co-star/big screen heartthrob Chris Pratt and economy-size chanteuse Ariana Grande fits that bill.

For the purposes of this review, I'm mashing up the sketch-by-sketch analysis with assorted notes:

+ I know it's the season premiere, but it still annoys me when the cold opening starts with canned, thunderous applause. It just doesn't feel natural, you know?

+ As for the cold open itself, you can tell the various NFL scandals were on the minds of everyone in the writers room these past two weeks.  It's a hot button topic, don't get me wrong, but I was more curious to see a topical sketch about, say, ISIS or Ferguson, MO. The sketch itself was okay; CNN's "State of the Union" set the template for Roger Goodell's (Chris) cluelessness, Ray Rice's (KT) dodginess, and Jay Pharaoh doing a cartoony take on mealymouthed Shannon Sharpe.

+ He already pointed this out on Instagram, but every character Taran Killam played tonight required a ridiculous amount of makeup.

+ Tonight's Weekend Update ran a bit long, yet at the same time offered a glimmer of hope to the undisputed weak spot of Season 39's second half. Michael Che has found his groove almost immediately, delivering clever jokes about Hillary Clinton's trip to Iowa and "Orange is the New Black." Colin Jost is still a work in progress; he seems a little more animated, but not by much. The return of The Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With at a Party was a passing of the baton of sorts; most SNL fans will argue that Colin was more problematic than Cecily, but she's clearly happier to be away from the WU desk. Whether you liked it or not, "youngster" Pete Davidson made a strong first impression with a stand-up bit about he would perform oral sex for obscene quantities of money.

+ I think I grasped what tonight's filmed piece was spoofing? The intentionally stilted dialogue and wooden acting suggested a parody of some lousy early '90s family sitcom --something akin to "Blossom" or ABC's TGIF juggernaut-- or maybe it exists to simply exist.

+ I don't know if Michael Che will be a regular presence in sketches, and I assume Pete Davidson will be at some point, but I was a little bewildered to see Cojo outside of the Update construct. Even as a football player accused of mail fraud "because he's the punter," it didn't really seem like Jost was playing a character.

+ Speaking of "NFL on CBS," Leslie Jones (a writer) was in more sketches than Sasheer Zamata (an actual cast member). Anomaly or buyer's remorse?

+ For a sitcom actress, Ariana Grande did not seem wholly uncomfortable in these surroundings. She clearly flubbed her only line in the "Birthday Wish" sketch, and apparently forgot her chereography in both of her musical performances. It wasn't a Lana Del Rey train wreck or a Ashlee Simpson meltdown by any means, but it was still underwhelming.

VERDICT: This was not a perfect show, but after the logjam of Year 39, this was a step in the right direction. This (slightly) smaller cast is a lot tighter, though the two newbies and the surviving members of the Class of '13 mostly took a backseat to more established members of the cast. Chris Pratt was a fun host, balancing his Starlord bravado with Andy Dwyer goofiness to great effect. The writing was as hit and miss as you'd expect, though the performances from Pratt and the repertory cast more than made up for it.

Overall grade: 6/10

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Seasons of Love: "Chappelle's Show," Season Two (2004)


This year marks the unofficial tenth anniversary of what I'll call "Chappellemania." The mid-2000s were a lousy time for TV comedy --sitcom, sketch, or otherwise-- so for that time period I'd rank Chappelle's Show up there with "Arrested Development," "Scrubs," and Bush-era "Daily Show" among the few torch-bearers of the form. As a sketch comedy in 2004, Dave Chappelle was running laps around the competition: SNL was still struggling to find itself post-Will Ferrell, and MADtv was consistently inconsistent and relying heavily on one-note recurring characters.

The story behind the Dave Chappelle's rise to fame and confusing downfall is a fable told many times, a cautionary tale of too much too soon. After years of struggling, including a procession of failed TV pilots, Chappelle became an overnight success. However, writer's block and interference from Viacom instigated an apparent nervous breakdown from which Chappelle is still recovering. He gave us two years of great sketches and pointed social commentary (let's pretend the piecemeal, mostly Chappelle-free third season didn't happen) before disappearing into the ether. He returned to stand-up in recent years a humbled family man, but it just isn't the same.

So how does "Seasons of Love" tackle a sketch comedy show? By focusing more on the individual sketches, rather than episodes. Sketch comedy is inherently uneven, so it would seem unwieldy to judge the second season of "Chappelle's Show" by looking at an entire 30-minute episode (including the obligatory music video) as a whole. The first year is fine in its own right, but I'll argue that season two is a desert-island comedy pick.

Five Favorites:

"The Racial Draft," 1/21/04. The first home run of season two comes at the tail end of the season premiere. Combining Chappelle's yen for racial humor with the bloated media spectacle of the NFL and NBA drafts, various ethnicities claim dibs on racially ambigious media figures. Come for Chappelle's goofy Tiger Woods impression, stay for the self-deprecating Wu-Tang Clan cameo.

"Black Gallagher," 1/28/04. More or less a blackout sketch, this short, sweet, and succient bit lampoons the one-joke oddity that is Gallagher. Let's just say the Slegde-O-Matic is far from what the audience was expecting.

"Charlie Murphy's True Hollywood Stories," 2/11/04. Arguably the best-known, most-loved, and most quoted sketch in the entire series, Eddie's older brother (and an okay comedian in his own right) details a nightmarish evening in 1982 with the R&B star, by then a full-blown coke addict and apparent sociopath. The madness of this particular night is augmented by commentary from the real-life James, who denies nothing ("cocaine is a helluva drug") and only intermittently seems remorseful. When James died suddenly six months later, Comedy Central conspicuously paid tribute by repeating this episode three times in the span of six hours. Pecularily, Charlie's perilous brush with fame led to...

"Charlie Murphy's True Hollywood Stories," 2/18/04. ...an encounter with Prince. Where Chappelle's imitation of Rick James vaulted the show into the pop culture stratosphere, this one-off encounter with the Purple One might have been the stronger sketch. A chance meeting at an after-party segues into Charlie and friends getting their asses kicked on the basketball court by the diminutive guitar god (Chappelle again, see above) and his puffy-shirted entourage. There was no Greek chorus here; you'd just have to take Charlie's word for it.

"Black Bush," 4/14/04. Topical sketches typically have a short shelf life, and it usually doesn't work as nostalgia. However, the last sketch of the season is a unique exception. Chappelle and crew reimagine the Bush administration's initial handling of Operation Enduring Freedom as if our 43rd president were a disingenuous black guy. (The cameo from Prime Minister "Black Blair" is a riot.) Just when it seemed like Chappelle's near-constant skewing of race relations was starting to wear thin, it roars back with a vengence.

Your thoughts?

(456)

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Snap Decision

The NFL took a big credibility hit this month. Whether or not you thought Roger Goodell's punishment of former Ravens Pro Bowler Ray Rice was enough, the slow, doddering response was appalling. To assume that a battery or spousal abuse charge would get a lighter punishment than a failed drug or PED test is baffling, despite an ex post facto attempt at changing and augmenting the length of suspension. Not making any real changes until definitive video footage of Rice knocking out his then-fiancee, however is disingenuous. Rice's actions were inexcusable, and it deserved more than a slap on the wrist.

So does Roger Goodell deserve to lose his job? The National Organization of Women's demands of resignation are drastic. The new punishment that Rice faces is far more justified; not only is he suspended indefinitely, but his entire NFL career has been jeopardized. I do, however recommend an investigation into what Goodell knew and how he learned of this information. I waffled at the thought of Goodell being forced out until this surfaced; while not a cover-up on the scale of Watergate, was more than just a slip-up. It's not like the NFL didn't know what the other hand was doing; someone in the organization was stashing evidence. For that, Goodell will likely get forced out.

Other notes:

+ Part of me worries that we created this ISIS (ISIL?) monster. As such, we're the only country that can stop them. Much like Afghanistan in the early 1980s, we support a rebel organization in a foreign country (one, we assume, based in democracy) fighting a totalitarian power, and in due time it backfires. This time around, we're fighting an organization that makes Al Qaida look like the Apple Dumpling Gang. I fear history is doomed to repeat itself.

+ So... how about those Royals?

Next Week: the next installment of "Seasons of Love."

(455)

Saturday, August 30, 2014

32 Teams, 32 Haiku: My 2014 NFL Preview


I'm still in summer mode, but for a lot of people football season can't come soon enough. With four days until opening kickoff, I present my annual NFL predictions 17 morae at a time.

(NOTE: the asterisks are for wild card picks)

AFC North
1. Bengals. (10-6) Good, but good enough/in humdrum group, ginger snaps/will be sufficient.
2. Ravens*. (9-7) Without Rice cooking/the rush attack starves; Flacco/better earn his pay.
3. Steelers. (6-10) Aluminum in/the Steel Curtain; Big Ben will/get his clocks cleaned, still.
4. Browns. (4-12) Wow, what a train wreck/Johnny Football = Johnny Bench/until he grows up.

AFC East
1. Patriots. (10-6) Northeast no-brainer/aging Brady has enough/for one last great year.
2. Bills. (8-8) QB confusion/if E.J. falters, Orton/is their only hope.
3. Jets. (6-10) Uh, CJ2K?/Fading star is Band-aid on/weak, battered offense.
4. Dolphins. (6-10) Their O-line woes are/no longer Incognito/I doubt improvement.

AFC South
1. Colts. (11-5) With Nicks in the mix/there's no short supply of Luck/for Hoosier faithful.
2. Titans. (8-8) Big game Hunter is/budding star, but tonight's show/is the hurt Locker.
3. Texans. (7-9) Murphy's law, defined/after '13 debacle/with Fitz, hope for best.
4. Jaguars. (5-11) Coach Gus rubs the lamp/expects genies in Bortles/but he'll keep wishing.

AFC West
1. Broncos. (12-4) Denver doubled down/but after playoff woes, can/they get over hump?
2. Chiefs*. (10-6) Cinderella tale/no more; after career years/expect modest goals.
3. Chargers. (9-7) If health and D can/sing the body electic/they might shock again.
4. Raiders. (5-11) Prowlers of the sea/moving rumors will distract/from nondescript play.

NFC North
1. Packers. (10-6) Losing Raji hurts/Aaron will keep carrying/this good, flawed squad.
2. Bears. (9-7) Offense renaissance/fails to hide a flimsy D/games won't be boring.
3. Lions. (7-9) Where's the chemistry?/So much talent, underwhelms/because they don't gel.
4. Vikings. (5-11) New QB Teddy/Bridge (over troubled) water/don't expect wins yet.

NFC East
1. Eagles. (10-6) "Are you friends or Foles?"/spry Iggles ruffle feathers/but who's their safety?
2. Redskins. (8-8) Memo to Chucky:/even with RGIII, wins/are not child's play.
3. Giants. (6-10) Big Blue is fading/aging team, shaky Eli/hey, how 'bout them Jets?
4. Cowboys. (4-12) "Romophobia"/an irrational fear, since/he's not the problem.

NFC South
1. Saints. (11-5) Something unholy/in Crescent City; "Who Dat"/flies into the Brees.
2. Falcons*. (9-7) Unpredictable/dominant one year, crap next/they're still erratic.
3. Panthers. (7-9) Newton needs targets/after '13 title, can/Cam just run the ball?
4. Buccaneers. (5-11) Mr. Smith, new head coach/will ex-Bear presence get Bucs/all Lovie-dovey?

NFC West
1. Seahawks. (13-3) Still unbeatable/Sherman is a motormouth/Wilson lobs and serves.
2. 49ers*. (12-4) A great connection/Kaepernick to Crabtree makes/for dangerous threat.
3. Cardinals. (8-8) Honey Badger runs/everyone loves a dark horse/not unlike this team.
4. Rams. (4-12) Why oh why, last place?/this deep division, no mas/without a QB.

NFL MVP: Drew Brees, Saints
Offensive ROY: Sammy Watkins, Bills
Defensive ROY: Aaron Donald, Rams
First Head Coach Fired: Jason Garrett, Cowboys
Super Bowl XLIX: Seahawks 25, Broncos 20

Omaha! Omaha! I mean, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

(454)

Saturday, August 16, 2014

One Last Sports Blog Before My 30th Birthday

This will likely be my last blog post before my 30th birthday, which will be on August 18th. One of my internet guilty pleasures are semi-pointless lists where things are ranked for the sole purpose of starting debates. At first, I decided to rank the ten best (and worst) sports teams I've had the pleasure --or obviously, displeasure-- of watching in my three decades on this big blue marble. (You know that I overthink things.) I have a pretty clear of what teams I wanted on my list, but I also struggled to say something interesting, unique, and insightful about all of them. I'm too young to remember the '85 Chicago Bears or the champion Kansas City Royals team from the same year, but I vividly remember my Blackhawks romping to the Stanley Cup 18 short months ago. On the flip side of that, I remember when the Royals lost 107 games in 2005, the Bears during the Wannstadt years, and Da Hawks in the decade immediately preceding Bill Wirtz's death. For every 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, you have any Bulls squad coached by Tim Floyd or Jim Boylan. I'm scrambling to think of a Northwestern squad (save for women's lacrosse) that can balance out decades of football and basketball mediocrity, give or take the '95 Rose Bowl run.

Any capable sportswriter must learn to write with a neutral perspective, if not necessarily a neutral voice, no matter how tempting it is to be a homer and take sides. I'll never win the Cerulli Award, but I watched enough baseball, football, basketball, and hockey over the years to know what seperates a truly dominant team from a ghastly one. Without putting my favorite teams in consideration, I settled on two smaller lists, written in a perspective that has no other concern for that program or organization, in chronological order from 1984 to now:

GREATEST TEAMS:

  • The 1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers. College sports were barely in my peripheral in grade school, but overall '95 was one of the best years ever for college pigskin. Northwestern's unexpected rise of prominence following upsets of Notre Dame, Michigan, and Penn State was remarkable, but the Huskers were the undisputed #1 team all season. The Green-Phillips backfield was impossible to stop, the defense was a brick wall, and Nebraska averaged 51 points a game en route to a Fiesta Bowl decimation of Florida.
  • The 1998 New York Yankees. Maybe the last "pure" Yankees championship squad: few if any overpriced free agents, no known juicers, and a roster that was mostly homegrown. The year that Mariano Rivera broke out and Derek Jeter cemented his superstar status. They averaged more than two runs per game, and outside of early April they never lost more than two games in a row. They won games with their hitting, their rotation, their bullpen, and their bench. Top to bottom dominant.
  • The 2001-02 Detroit Red Wings. As a Chicagoan, I am just as obligated to hate the Wings as any true Bears fan spews vitriol at the Packers. Sweet holy crap, however this team was stacked. This was an alignment of All-Stars and Hockey Hall of Famers that could only last one year, a true fantasy hockey roster if there ever was one. Besides familar faces like Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan, the roster read like a who's who of '90s NHL superstars: Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, Chris Chelios, with Dominik Hasek in goal. A near-constant offense threat on every line more than made up for the advancing age of the Wings' ringers. Outside of a first-round scare by Vancouver, there was little doubting who would win the West and hoist the Stanley Cup.
  • The 2007 New England Patriots. Maybe the greatest sports team to not win a championship. You can blame their underwhelming performance in Super Bowl XLII on both exhaustion and a strong effort by the New York Giants' defense. The fact of the matter is, they went 16-0 in a season where the AFC East was still competitive and their ease of schedule was somewhere in the middle. No one except Big Blue gave them much of a challenge.
  • The 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs. Too soon, you say? Granted, the Spurs were the best team in a stacked Western Conference, and in the '14 Finals they disposed a much flashier Miami Heat squad in five games simply by playing the game right. They demonstrated how Gregg Popovich and company put fundamentals first; their formula was a blend of young and seasoned players, a mix of solid shooting with crisp defensive play. Tim Duncan are Manu Ginobili are two of the most low-key future Hall of Famers in the game, with Tiago Splitter --arguably the greatest 30th overall pick ever-- having a coming out party with his solid two-way play against Lebron et al.

WORST TEAMS:

  • The 2002 Tampa Bay Devil Rays. A textbook example of a youth movement, and the exact moment people realized the Rays' original management didn't know what they were doing. All the aging, overpriced free agents from their inaugural squad four years earlier had either moved on or retired. This left the Rays with a roster of cheaper, still aging free agents (hi, Greg Vaughn!) thrown together with maybe the most disorganized farm system in recent memory. Top prospect Greg "Toe" Nash never made it to Tropicana Field, a disappearing act that was nearly as fast as his unlikely arrival. Former first round pick Josh Hamilton was still in his cocaine and painkillers phase. Carl Crawford was probably called up to The Show too soon, but his .259 average showed promise. This was the only full major league season of Jared Sandburg, the nephew of the Cubs' Hall of Fame second baseman. It was obvious that Jared wasn't major league material, but the Rays' farm system didn't have any other third basemen, so Sandburg's so-so glove and .220 average made do.
  • The 2003, 2004, and 2005 College of DuPage Chapparals (football). If you're from the west suburbs of Chicago and your family couldn't afford to send you to a four-year university, chances are you earned your basic credits at COD before transferring. I was no exception; I earned an Associates in Arts before spending two years at Illinois State. During my 2 1/2 years in Glen Ellyn, JNCO sports were always in my peripheral, and COD's atrocious football program symbolized school spirit or lack thereof. The '03 and '04 Chaps both went 0-11, and the '05 squad won their first game before dropping the next ten. The star running back on the 2003 team shot and killed a guy, than almost got off the hook because of Illinois' "defense of dwelling" statute. (He spent two months in jail for not having an owner's ID.) The intent of JNCO is to assemble a competitive team out of the prep players the major schools overlooked. The COD Chaps were misfits and castoffs, and played with a massive chip on their shoulders.
  • The 2007 and 2008 Indiana State Sycamores (also football). Even for a mid-major, the Trees were pitiful. From 2006 to 2009 ISU dropped 32 games in a row, and their winless seasons in '07 and '08 were bookended by 1-10 campaigns. Other schools in the Gateway Conference were clammering to host Indiana State for their homecoming game (including my Illinois State Redbirds) if only because their incompetence guaranteed a home blowout win in front of a sellout crowd. The Sycamores' football program has since upgraded from awful to merely mediocre, but those rough years in the late 2000s still linger.
  • The 2012 Charlotte Bobcats. I won't deny the brilliance of Michael Jordan as a basketball player; he's the G.O.A.T. for a reason. As an executive and scout, however it's been a lengthy learning experience to say the least. After dropping 23 straight games to finish the season, Jordan was booed on his home court for the first time ever because of this hot mess, a 7-59 squad in a lockout-shortened season. At least the Bobcats' two lottery picks that season (Bismack Biyombo and Kemba Walker) weren't the busts that many had feared.

This is not a complete list by any means. Maybe it's fatigue from decades of watching NU hoops, but I don't really care about college basketball until bracket time. The 1992 U.S. Olympic "Dream Team" was ridiculously dominant, but everyone and their mother expected them to crush everything in their path. I'm not that concerned with non-team sports, so no NASCAR or PGA. Either way, it's my birthday and I'm feeling super self-indulgent.
(453)

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Death of a Clown

(Ed. note: this is cut and pasted from a Facebook status update that I posted on the evening of Monday, August 11th.)

My father and I are comedy geeks of sorts, but our taste in comedians varies significantly. I like Letterman, he preferred Leno. I watch Fallon now, he prefers Kimmel. Only in the last year or so has he come around to "Seinfeld." Yet we both agreed on Robin Williams. What made Williams so unique was his ability to be a self-contained, almost defiant artist and an everyman at the same time. There are very few comedians in this world that can be conceptual and tangential, yet simultaneously so populist. Even if Williams turned into a caricature of himself in later years, he was phenomenal to watch. His rapid-fire riffing was its own kind of improv.

The Robin quote that has popped up most frequently these past few hours has been "You're only given a little spark of madness. You mustn't lose it." What a lot of people don't realize about comedians is that we're all a little mad, whether we're just peculiar or full-blown insane, and that comedy is our outlet, our catharsis, our confessional. Robin Williams was not the first comedic talent to battle depression or drug abuse, nor will he be the last. Some of us turn those demons into art, while others are consumed by it; either we let our faults inspire us or consume us. Unfortunately, Robin rose with the former and fell with the latter. I just hope that his death today is a reminder that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem, and something that can be prevented. Remember the nearly four decades of laughs, not his ignoble end.


(452)

Monday, August 4, 2014

My Inevitable Gaza Blog Entry

A few days ago, a tiny independent film called "Guardians in the Galaxy" was released in theaters. Toward the end of the film, a CGI-animated talking raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper says something incredibly sage and insightful: "Everyone has dead people. That doesn't mean everyone else in the galaxy needs to die because of it."

In spite of its source, this quote applies quite well to major international story of the past few weeks, the umpteenth skirmish between Israeli and Palestinian forces in the Gaza Strip. It's the same childlike "he hit me first," avenging-my-ancestors mentality that has dogged the region since the late 1940s. Unlike past conflicts in the Holy Land, this latest round of attacks and never-ending crusades for revenge has spilled out to social media, where everyone and their mother has been posting and tweeting their opinions for nearly a month now. I've been largely a spectator, but the near-constant arguing has left me exhausted. A fair number of friends and acquaintances are either pretending to be experts or sharing links to op-eds that support their opinions.

I am fully aware that this conflict is complex and convoluted, a fight along religious lines that spans centuries, if not millennia. What I don't think people realize is that if any side in this fight was unilaterally right or wrong, the "war" would have ended decades ago. I suppose the reason why I haven't said anything consequential about this controversy until now is because I'm somewhere between apathetic and burned out. Lately, the mere thought makes me feel lethargic. For that alone, I don't plan on commenting until it all dies down... or whenever Israel and Palestine inevitably start throwing rocks at each other again, I don't know.

NOTE: Thanks to Matthew Kovich for inspiring this post.

(451)

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Farewell, 3541 N. Clark


In the wee hours of Sunday, July 20th the famed iO (formerly Improv Olympic) theater in Chicago shuttered its doors on 3541 N. Clark, its home since the mid-1980s. It was the concluding chapter in a 4 1/2 year struggle to keep the theater in its Wrigleyville space. Ultimately, the growth of the Chicago improv scene in the past decade, as well as plans to turn the area directly south of Wrigley Field into a massive retail space, spearheaded the move to a new, larger space on 1501 N. Kingsbury, a mile and a half west of Second City. Though this onetime garment factory will not be with us for much longer, its place in Chicago theater history is irreplaceable: scores of comedians, improvisors, and actors learned their craft and performed here, making their way to SNL, MADtv, and even movie stardom. For a lot of regulars on the Chicago improv scene (including myself), it was like a second home.

If the Second City Training Center was the first chapter of my improv story, than iO physically and peripherally dominates the rest of the book. The first show I saw at iO was The DelTones in March 2010; I tagged along with four or five other Level E classmates for some group bonding. Little did I know that three of the performers that night (Tara DeFrancisco, Lyndsay Hailey, and Craig Uhlir) would later become my instructors, or that less than a year later I would be interning at iO on Saturday nights.

On April 30th, 2010 --five days after my first Level 1 class with Tara D-- I was unceremoniously replaced at my job. An almost Sisyphean job search, paired with financial woes and family health issues, made for a very trying summer. For a while, my weekly commute from Downers Grove to Wrigleyville was my only reason to wake up in the morning. As my radio dreams faded, improv class became a badly needed creative outlet as well as my catharsis. This was when I first truly experienced the close-knit improv community and its positive, cream-rises-to-the-top mindset. Eventually, I started taking writing classes at iO and participating in Lyndsay's Hangover Clinic on Saturday mornings. The myriad free shows I attended between 2010 and 2012 were both entertainment and an education. In spite of my personal struggles, for the first time in years, I felt like I was flourishing at something.

Fast forward to August 2011. It was the last night of 5B shows, and after our last set we all headed up to the Annex for pizza and beer. Overall, I thought our seven week run went well, though I thought my overall performance was merely okay. (It also helped that was in a level that was deep with improv talent, as 19 of us would eventually play on Harold teams at one point or another.) One of my teammates, a very diminutive young woman, stood on the chair next to mine to remind everyone that she was hosting a wrap party at her coach house in Roscoe Village. When someone asked for an address, I yelled out the directions I had memorized earlier that day: "Take the Red Line to Belmont, than get on the 77 bus west to Wellington..."

At that very moment, the entire room started chanting "Stu-S-A." I was gobsmacked, blushing, and at a complete loss for words. After a solid minute of cheering and chanting, and I stood up and took a bow, not realizing I hadn't even removed the satchel off my shoulder. I have never received an ovation that like that before or since. I couldn't work up the nerve to say thank you until I posted on Facebook the next day. It's not clear who started the chant; I assume it was the aforementioned girl, though I guess I'll never know now. I still get people from those classes saying "Stu-S-A" from time to time.

With that said, I will be leaving a treasure trove of memories at 3541 N. Clark, and I wish iO Chicago nothing but the best as they move from Wrigleyville to Kingsbury and Blackhawk. My sincere thanks to my instructors Tara D, Kate Duffy, Barry Hite, the incomparable Lyndsay Hailey, Lisa Linke, Craig Uhlir, Noah Gregoupoulos, Charna Halpern, and Nate Herman for their sage wisdom and encouragement, and to all the people I met and encountered in the House That Del Built.

(450)

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Seasons of Love: "The Simpsons," Season Five (1993-94)


I'm not sure which is more staggering: that "The Simpsons" was in its creative peak 20 years ago, or that the show is still chugging along, breaking one TV record after another as it survives into its 26th season. Sometimes I imagine an alternate universe where "The Simpsons" ended its run around 2002 or so, made two theatrical movies inbetween, and a revival series is now available for streaming on Netflix. We can spend days dwelling upon the show's current state of mediocrity and how it became a victim of its own longevity, but you can find plenty of articles and discussion board rants elsewhere on the internet. (Given its age, it's amazing that they've kept the original cast intact, and they're still crackerjack.) This is "Seasons of Love," and I want to accentuate the positive.

On paper, Season Five should not have been the The Simpsons' greatest year. The writing staff was in transition, with the remaining charter members of the scribes' room heading for greener pastures either after 1992-93 or during 1993-94. At least one episode (the Sideshow Bob vehicle "Cape Feare") was a holdover from Season Four, and it was the last season in which most of the episodes aired out of production order. One staff writer, Conan O'Brien, learned he was chosen to host a late night talk show and abruptly walked out on his contract midway through the production year. The number of guest stars increased, and one episode featured a principal character going into outer space (more on that later). It was the last season the show aired on Thursday nights, before a short-lived attempt to make the show more family-friendly without overhauling the show's general concept. If you were wondering why some of the 1994-95 episodes seem a little blander than the surrounding seasons, now you know why.

With that said, Seasons Four and Five are two of my desert island DVD sets, and all 22 episodes rank from very good to outstanding. Whittling down my list to five was tricky, so I broke a self-imposed rule and included a "best of the rest" list below. I look forward to your thoughts, if not necessarily the inevitable whining about the current state of the show.

Five Favorites:

"Homer's Barbershop Quartet" (episode 1, 82nd overall). The mythology surrounding The Beatles is skewed mercilessly in this charming season premiere. Writer Jeff Martin is a die-hard Beatles fan and it shows, and George Harrison has a brief but crucial cameo. Arguably the first TV show to do an '80s flashback (or three), Homer's small-time singing group hits the big time with a fluke hit song, but success takes its toll on his young family.

"Cape Feare" (episode 2, 83rd overall). Not only the best Sideshow Bob episode, but a showcase for recurring guest star Kelsey Grammar. Arguably Springfield's most erudite sociopath, Bob's parole forces the Simpsons --who had foiled his plots twice before-- to join the Witness Protection Program. The rake gag, originally written as time filler, is so stupid it's brilliant.

"Rosebud" (episode 4, 85th overall). "Citizen Kane" is the basis, if not necessarily the backbone, of an episode that focuses largely on Mr. Burns. After four years of one-dimensional villainry, we finally learn his backstory: his long-lost teddy bear Bobo represents his youthful innocence, and after the stuffed animal somehow lands in Maggie's arms, Burns schemes to get his beloved toy back.

"Deep Space Homer" (episode 15, 96th overall). This could have been a "jump the shark" moment, but despite the out-there premise the core of the story is Homer's dignity and the family dynamic. A series of coincidences turns Homer into NASA's first "everyman" astronaut, and his gross incompetence threatens to turn his first life achievement into chaos. The scene with the ants is a riot.

"Sweet Seymour Skinner's Baadasssss Song" (episode 19, 100th overall). This milestone episode could have been an extravaganza, but instead the writers chose to focus on the then-underutilized Principal Skinner. When Bart's irresponsibility gets Skinner fired, our guilt-ridden fourth-grader follows up with his nemesis, and an unlikely friendship develops. This is a profound, relationship-based episode, but not without its laugh out loud moments (Groundskeeper Willie in the vents, the Kwik-E-Mart gas station).

Best of the Rest: "Homer Goes to College" (episode 3), "Treehouse of Horror IV" (episode 5), "Homer and Apu" (episode 13).

Your thoughts?

(449)

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The War on 44

Earlier this week, the New York Post in conjunction with Quinnipiac University ranked the best and worst U.S. presidents since World War II. Of the 12 men that have held the office since Franklin Roosevelt's sudden passing in 1945, the unscientific poll ranked Barack Obama as the worst of the dozen. The choice wasn't a landslide; combined, the last two presidents earned 61% of the "worst president" vote, with Richard Nixon a distant third.

In late 2008, I wrote a two-part essay grading the George W. Bush administration. It was part retrospective and part moratorium, written three weeks before our 43rd president was to leave public life and well after any impact could be made to alter the legacy of his flawed presidency. I did not anticipate writing a similar essay about Barack Obama until December 2016 or January 2017, when our current Commander in Chief is expected to hand over the reins and segue into private life. Rest assured, 2 1/2 years from now I will write a similar essay in structure if not necessarily tone, and as far as I'm concerned that missive is only two-thirds written.

In all honesty, I've grown to accept the Obama administration for the mixed bag that it has truly become. I feel that for the near-constant criticism he has faced in the last 18 months, maybe half of the vitriol is justified. The progress he has made in support of energy regulation and LGBT rights certainly maintains his credibility in liberal social circles. Obama's steady hand in bolstering the economy and gradually creating job growth in the wake of the 2008-09 recession --without much help from a polarized Congress, mind you-- has been overlooked by the partisan fight over health care reform, questions about domestic privacy, and his aloof approach to foreign policy. At this time, Obama will rank in the middle of the pack, if not slightly below the average. If Martin Van Buren, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan have taught us anything, there have been far more incompetant leaders in our nation's 238-year history. If you want to rank just the presidents that won reelection, it's hard to argue that Obama was worse than the rudderless, scandal-plagued 8 year stint of Ulysses S. Grant. Or the aforementioned Tricky Dick. Or, if I dare suggest it, Bush 43.

It would be easy for me to dismiss this poll as meaningless, but at the same time hindsight is 20/20. As I stated not quite six years ago, we can't really analyze the legacy of a president until he's been out of office for a few years. If this poll were taken eight years ago, those surveyed would have chosen Bush 43 by a sizable margin. On top of that, Bush 43 and Obama are the first two presidents whose administrations were fully ingrained in the internet era, where anyone can say anything within the alleged anonymity of modern technology, and trolls and haters can repeat the same meme ad nauseum. The president's flaws have been magnified, every apparant blunder scrutinized to infinity.

It feels weird defending someone I have mixed feelings about. At the same time, the only people that are declaring President Obama a failure are the same critics that wished he would crash and burn six years ago. They take something that wasn't totally his fault --a Solyndra here, a Benghazi there-- and feast on it like ribs at a street festival. Most of the issues he has faced in office --immigration, Iraq, gun control-- are still lingering from past administrations. I voted for Obama in 2008, not because of the naive optimism that swooned my peers, but simply because he appeared to be the stronger of the two candidates. Begrudgingly, I did the same thing in 2012. The legacy of our 44th president is a hodgepodge, but also still up for interpretation, and not beyond repair. I just hate to imagine what the next guy will be up against.

Other notes:

+ I'm sure some of you might have noticed the name change above. After nearly two years of inconsistent blogging --about three entries a month-- it didn't make sense to call this "Stu's Weekly Updates" anymore. As much as I love the challenge of writing a new blog entry once a week, my hectic schedule simply doesn't permit it anymore. I'm not going anywhere, I'm just accepting my current reality.

Next Week: my third "Seasons of Love" TV essay.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Back to the Sandbox

Iraq has become a greater Pandora's Box than anyone could have possibly imagined. Even though there was a worldwide consensus 12 years ago that Saddam Hussein must be ousted, the execution (in the broader sense) was botched, and nearly every attempt to remedy the situation has either stagnated or failed. There were reports of turmoil and potential terrorist activity after we pulled out four years ago, and now the region is on the cusp of chaos again. When even Glenn Beck is admitting that "the liberals" were right about not invading, you know the prospect of another invasion is universally unpopular. Another full-scale operation is as financially unfeasible as it is morally ambiguous. There lies the dilemma: ISIS must be quashed, but for once we might have to defer to someone else.

Other notes:

+ Speaking of war, while I don't agree with the methods that were used to rescue Bowe Bergdahl, there is no justifable reason to leave any American troops behind. The negotiation was not only five years in the making, but it was also a last resort. If Bergdahl is the deserter and space cadet that the media makes him out to be, than as a soldier he has the right to some type of trial or military tribunal.

+ Talk about perfect timing-- just as the school year ends, I find another temp job. To sweeten the pot, the job is not only within Chicago city limits but it's essentially temp-to-hire.

+ The Royals were in first place this late in the season for the first time in 11 years. As of this writing, they were on their first 10-game winning streak in 20 years... followed by a four-game schneid. Either way, you better believe I'm grinning from ear to ear.

(447)

Sunday, June 15, 2014

My Ninth Annual Fantasy Emmy Ballot

You know the drill. Even though the network television season ended three weeks ago, the deadline for Emmy contention is later this month. What better time than now to get the speculation started?

Writing in a Variety/Comedy/Music Series: (name listed is head writer) Opus Moreschi, The Colbert Report; Mike Sweeney, Conan; Steve Bodow, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart; Molly McNearney, Jimmy Kimmel Live; A.D. Miles, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon; Bill Maher, Real Time with Bill Maher.
Outstanding Variety/Comedy/Music Series: "The Colbert Report," Comedy Central; "Conan," TBS; "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," Comedy Central; "Jimmy Kimmel Live," ABC; "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon," NBC; "Saturday Night Live," NBC.

Outstanding Miniseries: "American Horror Story: Coven" (FX); "Bonnie and Clyde" (History Channel); "Dancing on the Edge" (Starz); "Fargo" (FX); "Rosemary's Baby" (NBC); "The White Queen" (Starz).
Outstanding Made for TV Movie: "Burton and Taylor" (BBC America); "Clear History" (HBO); "Muhammed Ali's Greatest Fight" (HBO); "The Normal Heart" (HBO); "Sherlock: His Last Vow" (PBS/BBC); "The Trip to Bountiful" (Lifetime).

Supporting Actress, Comedy: Mayim Bialik, The Big Bang Theory; Julie Bowen, Modern Family; Anna Chlumsky, Veep; Kate Mulgrew, Orange is the New Black; Sofia Vergara, Modern Family; Merritt Wever, Nurse Jackie.
Supporting Actor, Comedy: Ty Burrell, Modern Family; Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Modern Family; Max Greenfield, New Girl; Neil Patrick Harris, How I Met Your Mother; Ed O'Neill, Modern Family; Eric Stonestreet, Modern Family.
Supporting Actress, Drama: Christine Baranski, The Good Wife; Anna Gunn, Breaking Bad; Christina Hendricks, Mad Men; Allison Janney, Masters of Sex; Dame Maggie Smith, Downton Abbey; Maisie Williams, Game of Thrones.
Supporting Actor, Drama: Jim Carter, Downton Abbey; Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones; Woody Harrelson, True Detective; Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad; John Slattery, Mad Men; Jeffrey Wright, Broadwalk Empire.

Lead Actress, Comedy: Lena Dunham, Girls; Edie Falco, Nurse Jackie; Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep; Melissa McCarthy, Mike & Molly; Amy Poehler, Parks & Recreation; Taylor Schilling, Orange is the New Black.
Lead Actor, Comedy: Louie C.K. Louie; Johnny Galecki, The Big Bang Theory; Matt LeBlanc, Episodes; Jim Parsons, The Big Bang Theory; Andy Samberg, Brooklyn Nine-Nine; Robin Williams, The Crazy Ones.
Lead Actress, Drama: Connie Britton Nashville; Claire Danes, Homeland; Michelle Dockery, Downton Abbey; Julianna Margulies, The Good Wife; Elisabeth Moss, Mad Men; Kerry Washington, Scandal.
Lead Actor, Drama: Steve Buscemi, Boardwalk Empire; Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad; Jeff Daniels, The Newsroom; Jon Hamm, Mad Men; Matthew McConaughey, True Detective; Kevin Spacey, House of Cards.

Best Comedy Series: "The Big Bang Theory," CBS; "Girls," HBO; "Modern Family," ABC; "Orange is the New Black," Netflix; "Parks & Recreation," NBC; "Veep," HBO.
Best Drama Series: "Breaking Bad," AMC; "Game of Thrones," HBO; "The Good Wife," CBS; "House of Cards," Netflix; "Mad Men," AMC; "True Detective," HBO.

As always, I look forward to the debate that should ensue.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Through a Fourth Freshman's Eyes

For the fourth year in a row, I present my presumptive Mindset List for this year's high school graduating class. Since this year's college freshmen were mostly born in late 1995 and early 1996, it astounds me to think I'm closer to turning 40 than I am from earning my own high school diploma. With that said, 1996 was kind of a slow news year, so a lot of the tidbits I mentioned last year still apply.

So why do I keep writing this list every year? Because when Beloit College releases their annual list in August, they're always bound to miss something.

Without further ado, if you are an incoming college freshman...

...there have always been DVDs.
...O.J. Simpson has always been *cough* "innocent" of two murders.
...The Unabomber has always been under federal custody.
...Dean Martin, George Burns, Terry Southern, Yitzhak Rabin, Audrey Meadows, McLean Stevenson, Erma Bombeck, P.L. Travers, Jon Pertwee, Timothy Leary, Mel Allen, Ella Fitzgerald, and Claudette Colbert have always been dead.
..."ValuJet" has always been associated with plane crashes, safety problems, and all-around incompetence.
...Prince Charles and Princess Diana were never married.
...you briefly shared this planet with the first known 120-year-old person.
...Croatia has never had a civil war.
...Texas has always been threatening to secede from the United States.
...world champion chessmasters have always been playing against computers.
...you've never eaten an Arch Deluxe.
...the Dow Jones Industrial Average has never been below 5,000.
...you've never been to a Ramones concert.
...you've always associated Will Smith with movies, not TV, and only intermittently as a musician.
...there have always been at least three cable news networks, and they have always been differentiated by being conservative, liberal, and moderate.
...the first James Bond was Pierce Brosnan.
...the New York Yankees rarely miss the playoffs.
...there has always been NHL hockey in Arizona.
...there has always been an NFL team in Baltimore-- at least one that wears black and purple, anyway.
...the Dallas Cowboys have never won, much less played in, the Super Bowl.
...the United States has never hosted the Summer Olympics.
...Gregg Popovich has always been head coach of the San Antonio Spurs.
...Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Derek Fisher, and Ray Allen have always played in the NBA.
...it has always been possible for an NHL team to win a Stanley Cup in its first year of existence.
...Northwestern University has always been known as a "football school."

Next Week: my 9th Annual Fantasy Emmy Ballot.

(445)

Thursday, May 29, 2014

My Three Worst Shows

This week marks five years since my first improv class at Second City. With all the personal drama I've battled in past few years, improvisation and comedy have been a constant in my life, cathartic as well as a creative outlet.  At the same time, it's one of the few things I don't feel comfortable explaining. Even though I've been improvising a fairly long time, it's become such a personal part of me that it's difficult to write about it introspectively. I'm still learning and honing my craft, and even if a particular show didn't go that well, I have the confidence and hindsight to learn from my mistakes and keep chugging along. Above all, there's plenty to learn when a show goes very badly. Here are three examples:

1. My Level D Performance Show, Donny's Skybox, 2/28/2010. My second show ever. My first improv show before an audience went well for our class, and we were chomping at the bit to do it again. However, there was an unexpected and discernible difference between our Level C instructor and Level D teacher: one taught and the other didn't. One offered pragmatic and concise feedback, the other just said "that's nice" and often seemed as distant and she was vague.

In the end, everything that could go wrong did. The energy was very low, no one seemed to be listening, we were barely starting scenes and rushing through in desperate, almost selfish gasp for stage time. Even in the structured, rapid-fire dynamic of short-form "game" improv nothing seemed to be happening. The show closed with a round of Blind Freeze where everyone just kept editing after two lines, far too short to develop any scene. We had our show the evening after our last class, so it's not like our Level D instructor was going to share her notes, either.

Lesson Learned: Just breathe.

2. Underground Lounge, circa July 2012. I finally started to dabble in "barprov" in late 2011, and often I would book 18- to 20-minute slots first without having a specific person or team to play with. I suppose that's okay in some circles, but it's preferable to book a slot for someone or something in particular. Booking said slot on less than 72 hours' notice makes things much trickier. On this particular night, nearly my entire social circle had other plans. I messaged about 40 people on Facebook before settling on "Lamar," a mutual friend with limited barprov experience, followed by a former classmate that I hadn't been in touch with. On paper, this was an odd couple.

The slot was booked at 8pm on a Wednesday night. I gave the host the name "The Partial Enchilada," my catch-all for anytime I was doing improv on a casual, non-committal basis. The mutual friend showed up on time, but the former classmate completely flaked out. (In fact, I never heard from the old fellow ever again.) On top of that, the air conditioning was malfunctioning; the machine was above the stage, and it was not operating or blasting on an intermittent basis. Once we were set to play, we proceeded to do a series of scenes with Lamar that involved a lot of talking but not much physical action. The AC was very loud at that point, so we had people sitting in the front row yelling "speak up!" as we're doing scenes.

I ended up giving Lamar a ride back to the CTA, but we haven't played together since.

Lesson Learned: A bad idea with strong support goes a lot further than good idea with no support. Also, I hate flake-outs.

3. Upstairs Gallery, Valentine's Day Jam, 2/14/2014. What happens when you encounter someone who intensely dislikes you, and you have to perform in front of them? I had largely avoided that situation until this past V-Day, when I ran into another former classmate and onetime friend at this Andersonville venue. "Erika" had severed ties shortly after her 23rd birthday in September 2012 (odd timing, I know). I later found out by accident that Erika had unfriended and blocked me on Facebook, for reasons that are still very much unclear. Any attempt to communicate with her by e-mail and text have been largely ignored. I don't recall having any specific misunderstanding with her, which makes our communication breakdown even more peculiar.

Even though I wasn't booked to perform, any improviser that was invited was also encouraged to participate in a jam between acts. When my name was pulled from a hat, I stood up from my folding chair, found my place in the line on stage, and... inadvertent made eye contact with Erika. As she sat in the back row, the look on her face could be described as mildly annoyed. This particular ten-minute set went okay, but I was in my head the entire time; I made one strong character choice and that didn't go anywhere, and largely couldn't get a word in edgewise. I spent the rest of the evening either fishing for positive feedback from my peers, or making small talk to avoid any further awkward encounters with my unintended adversary.

Lesson Learned: Don't let drama distract you.

Next Week: my Class of 2014 memory list.

(444)

Saturday, May 24, 2014

No Man is a Lonely Island: My Review of Andy Samberg/St. Vincent (5/17/14)

Scroll down for a special bonus review!

I can't recall ever having such a hard time writing an SNL review. I blame most of the fatigue on the almost universal and undeserved derision toward Year 39, maybe the weakest season of SNL in recent memory. To say 2013-14 was awful by any means is an exaggerated misnomer, though the first half of the season was considerably stronger than the second. If anything, the blame should be shifted toward an increasingly rudderless writing staff, and not so much on a young, unproven, and overpopulated cast. The overall situation is a mess, but nothing that some minor tweaks and trimming couldn't salvage.

With that note, the ghosts of SNL's recent past resurface as a rebuilding year comes to a close. Sitcom star and recent Golden Globe winner Andy Samberg --I know, right?-- returns to host two years after quietly departing the live grind. The 29th alum to host will be joined by indie-pop sensation St. Vincent, referred to by some as the daughter David Byrne never had.

COLD OPENING: The current writing staff doesn't seem inclined to write political sketches, and James Downey's decision to take a year off made that apathy almost transparent. Thus, tonight's topical sketch has a fish-in-the-barrel feel. Solange Knowles (SZ) and Jay-Z (JP) want to make it abundently clear that there's lingering hard feelings about the previous weekend's elevator melee, though the tension keeps Hova's bodyguard (KT) on his toes. The actual security footage is dubbed to acknowledge a mutual hatred of spiders, and the security guard (BM) that leaked the video gets skewed in his own right. When Beyonce (Maya!) walked in to a 15-second ovation, it almost felt like playtime was over, and the adults were back in the room. It was a great cameo, yet at the same time it sucked the air out of the room.

MONOLOGUE: Coming off a banner year, Andy half-jokingly points out that he produced 101 Digital Shorts and appeared in six live sketches. He points out that Bill Hader holds the all-time record for impressions (he surpassed Darrell late last year, look it up) and with the assistance of Seth Meyers, tries to shatter that. Ultimately, any show like this will turn into a "cameo orgy," and after Andy breaks the record Hader takes it right back.

"Camp Wicawabe": Circa July 1990, two campers (AB, KM) host a pretend talk show inside one of the cabins. Their 4th grade-level of worldliness makes them both a little condescending, but similtaneously bewildered by Piper's cousin Jeremy (AS), a 14-year-old camper with a tendency to rub things with his posterior. Bolstered by winning performances from Aidy, Kate, and Mooney, this was just middle-of-the-pack and engaging enough that we'll probably see this recurring sketch again in Year 40.

DIGITAL SHORT: "When Will the Bass Drop?" is an oversimplified parody of EDM, with Andy playing a cultish DJ threatening to drop the beat like "The Pit and the Pendelum." He keeps teasing and teasing, then when the bass does drop, the club (to no one's surprise) turns into Armageddon. It seems brutally ironic that if this is the last time we ever see John Milhiser on SNL, we saw him perform seppuku in a nightclub.

"Confident Hunchback": Following the winking one-joke balderdash of "Rude Buddha," Victor Hugo's most beloved underdog is re-interpreted by Andy as an oblivious womanizer. Unlike "Rude Buddha," however this juxtaposition of 15th century alienation and 21st century swagger had a few stray chuckles. Besides, he has less than a year to live.

MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: Surrounded by bathroom tiles, "Birth in Reverse" showcases Annie Clark in all her elegant quirkiness. The robotic arm gestures complimented the warm electronica.

WEEKEND UPDATE: When half of Twitter thinks you're the second greatest WU anchorperson named Colin, you just have to accept the burn. Some writers aren't meant to be on-screen, and I'm still debating whether Colin Jost is one of them. Whatever progress Cecily Strong made as Seth Meyers' co-anchor has either stalled or regressed, and at times are time filler between sterling desk commentaries. The Jost-Strong tandem is light on chemistry, and their comfort level wavers at times. "Get in the Cage" was a nice treat, as Nic (AS) grills an uncomfortable Paul Rudd. (Speaking of Cage, I'm pretty sure that's the second week in a row Cojo has been addressed as "Seth" by a guest commentator.)

"The Kissing Vogelchecks": Andy was never really part of this outrageous sketch, but sure, I'll suspend disbelief this one time. Samberg is the doting son and Taran is the boyfriend/study in slow burn as the entire Vogelcheck clan snogs like teenagers in a 1996 Honda Accord. Fred Armisen and Kristen Wiig walk out to thunderous applause, and other family members (like Kate's ornery grandma) just randomly walk in from all sides of the living room. Than we realize what the sketch is really about (hint: the NFL Draft) and social commentary blends into the obvious slapstick.

"Wake Up With Kimye": This morning on the show, hip-hop's most self-involved power couple (JP, NP) are working out the final details of their pending nuptuals. The all-Kardashian band is subbed out by the cryptic presence of Bruce Jenner (TK), who just stands there and shoehorns himself into the Wests' vapid conversation.

DIGITAL SHORT: The Lonely Island's next album is still a work in progress, but "Hugs" is hot, fresh, and just for you. Tatiana Maslany, Maya Rudolph (again?), and Pharrell help out on a good-but-not-great track about girls who misinterpret a gentle embrace for something greater.

"Legolas from 'The Hobbit' Tries to Order at Taco Bell": A self-explanatory blackout sketch with the altruistic warrior (AS) attempting to get his burrito fix. It probably seemed fun on paper, but it was all static until Gimlet (BM) walked in.

"Blizzard Man": After a long self-imposed exile, Blizzy (AS) resurfaces to collaborate with 2 Chainz (yep, another cameo). The sabbatical didn't do much for his chops, which are just as goofy and flaccid as ever. I didn't mind this sketch, but how long can KT play the same sound engineer without putting his foot down? Is this amnesia of convenience?

MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: "Digital Witness" is another standout track from one of 2014's best albums so far, a Talking Heads-type song bolstered by Annie's guitar chops and what I could best describe as assembly-line line dancing. All hail our new robot overlords!

"Bvlgari": Our favorite ex-porn stars (VB, CS) launch their latest paper-thin scheme for free bling, this time modeling Italian watches. Despite a well-placed swipe at Donald Sterling, this latest scam brought nothing new to the table, and the obligatory endorsement by their wayward peers (AS, KW) was similarly arbitrary.

All in all, this was a typically uneven show to cap a decidedly uneven year for SNL. I'll give the producers credit for limiting the number of "cameo orgy" shows this season to just two. Tonight, the adults took over and the kids took a seat; Andy carried the show almost as if he never left, though having two-thirds of the Year 32 hanging around didn't hurt his case. At the same time, it must have been disconcerting for the struggling featured players to basically be told to sit out the season finale, when for two or three actors this was their last possible opportunity to show America they had a right to be here.

What Gets Cut From The 60-Minute Edit: one of the Digital Shorts, most of Update, "Wake Up With Kimye," "Legolas at Taco Bell," "Blizzard Man," and "Digital Witness."

--+---+--

And now, a recap of Season 39:

Scribes and internet trolls alike were shredding SNL to bits this year --especially after Seth left-- as if this were another Season 20. Rest assured, there were some highlights:

Most Valuable Player: Kate McKinnon. You might expect me to pick Taran, but hear me out-- the woman who "replaced" Kristen Wiig two-plus years ago really came into her own in 2013-14. Her array of impressions (Justin Bieber, Angela Merkel, Jane Lynch) is just about as impressive as her arsenal of characters (barfly Sheila Sovage, Olya the Russian hausfrau, the aforementioned Piper). If Wiig had a Dan Akyroyd-like quality, than McKinnon might as well be the female Will Ferrell. If this year was any indicator, K-Mac will be SNL's cleanup hitter for the remainder of the decade.

Most Improved: Aidy Bryant. Any doubts about Miss Bryant's presence and purpose on SNL were quashed in her sophomore year. She can play emotionally vulnerable and sexually aggressive with equal aplomb. It's a joy to watch her go zany in one scene and bemused in another. Chris Farley is an easy comparision, but that doesn't really do Bryant justice; she can be manic at times, but Aidy's a far more grounded performer.

Rookie of the Year: Beck Bennett. With only two white male actors returning from the previous year (three if you count Seth), a lot of the roles that would generally go to Bill Hader or Jason Sudeikis landed right in Beck's lap. That's not to say my fellow Chicago native was a victim of happenstance; Baby Boss was one of the stronger new recurring characters of the season, and he's a very capable straight man to boot.

Ranking the "Class of 2013" by Likehood of Returning for Season 40, in Descending Order: Beck Bennett, Kyle Mooney, Sasheer Zamata, Colin Jost, Michael Patrick O'Brien, Noel Wells, Brooks Wheelan, John Milhiser

Best Hosts of Season 39:
3. Louis C.K.
2. Melissa McCarthy
1. Kerry Washington

Worst Hosts of Season 39:
3. Miley Cyrus
2. Andrew Garfield
1. Josh Hutcherson

Best Musical Guests*:
3. St. Vincent
2. Janelle Monae
1. Arcade Fire

Worst Musical Guests:
3. Pharrell
2. Miley Cyrus
1. One Direction

Best Overall Episodes:
3. Jimmy Fallon/Justin Timberlake
2. Louis C.K./Sam Smith
1. Kerry Washington/Eminem

Worst Overall Episodes:
3. Seth Rogen/Ed Sheeran
2. Miley Cyrus
1. Jim Parsons/Beck

*Imagine Dragons' mash-up of "Radioactive" with Kendrick Lamar deserves an honorable mention. Man, that was amazing.

Questions or comments? Either post below or e-mail Stu at sma17kc@aim.com.