30 August 2012

Disney Imagineers on Standby for Romney Speech

A prototype for the Romney 2012.
The beard tested badly with focus groups and was eliminated.

ORLANDO, FL -- Specialists in robotic technology at Walt Disney World resort here are on high alert as their most ambitious “audio-animatronic” creation yet, presidential candidate Mitt Romney, prepares to make his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in nearby Tampa.

“We’ve worked for years on the Romney 2012 model,” said lead “Imagineer” Roger S. Wathel. “Any kind of malfunction would be hugely embarrassing, both to Disney and to the thousands of American citizens who have voted for the prototype already.”

A team of top imagineers is standing by at the convention center now, ready to snap into action in the event of short-circuting, programming or audio failure, or mechanical breakdown at any point during Mitt Romney’s speech, Wathel said. “We’ve got our best people working ’round the clock to make sure the model remains as lifelike as possible.”

If elected, the Romney 2012 could stand
alongside these prior models.
Unless of course something goes worng.

Party leaders selected the Romney 2012 model after determining that flesh-and-blood candidates were too unpredictable, frequently straying off-message, disobeying orders, and making outlandish choices of running mate. The Romney 2012 “is a candidate every Republican can get behind,” Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus has told reporters. “This country cannot afford another four years of failed Obama policies.”

The stakes couldn’t be higher, Wathel confirmed, which has put tremendous pressure on his team. “We tried to warn the Party about setting expectations too high,” Wathel said. “Then what do they do but send out the Romney-A to ‘humanize her husband,’ as they put it. Thanks for nothing!

“[Disney Chairman and CEO] Bob Iger nearly blew a gasket when he heard that,” Wathel added, “and by ‘blew a gasket,’ I do mean ‘blew a gasket.’”

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29 August 2012

The Trip to Harrison

The art of conversation: Sarah Nancy (Green)
and Dolores (Hallie Foote) in Blind Date.

A certain kind of genteel discourse prevalent in the South has over the years proved both a blessing and a curse. For many generations, talking around unpleasant subjects upheld the social order, but it also prevented the solution of longstanding problems seldom if ever addressed. Even today Southerners tend to be great storytellers and conversationalists: they can talk a great deal, but often it’s what goes unsaid that is most important.

The late Horton Foote demonstrated this again and again with a particularly Texan accent in plays for the stage and the screen. Three short pieces now being performed by the Primary Stages troupe at the 59E59 Theaters give New York audiences a wide range of the possibilities of Southern speech — perhaps most notably in The One-Armed Man, the second of the plays, in which conversation breaks down and violence erupts, of a kind virtually unknown elsewhere in Mr. Foote’s multi-voluminous work.

Mr. Foote sets all three plays in Harrison, Texas, the name he gave to the town of Wharton, where he was born and where he set most of his work; “Harrison, TX” is the portmanteau title for this production. Harrison lies even closer spiritually than Wharton lies geographically to Goliad, my mother’s hometown, a phenomenon that helps to account for the degree of kinship I feel with this author — one that my mother felt certain had to be genealogical, as well. (It isn’t, as Mr. Foote himself once confirmed.)

The playbill shows Mr. Foote at his desk.
Blurry photo by WVM. Some day I have got to get a working scanner.

Under Pam McKinnon’s adroit stage direction and together lasting about 90 minutes, the three plays are performed without intermission. The first, Blind Date set in 1928, brilliantly sets up the rest, as Dolores, a middle-aged matron, provides her niece (and, doubtless, much of the audience) a crash course in the kind of genteel conversation I’m talking about. It’s easy to see that Dolores’ sister has fobbed her daughter off on Dolores, having failed to find any eligible prospects for her back home; now Dolores rises to Amanda Wingfield desperation as she strives to make good on one last chance, in the form of a gentleman caller named Felix.

The ensuing scenes make for riotous comedy, of a kind we don’t often see from Mr. Foote; it’s lofted especially high by Hallie Foote (the playwright’s daughter and always one of his finest interpreters) as Dolores, and by the brilliant Andrea Lynn Green as the stubborn young Sarah Nancy. The girl has no interest whatever in Felix, whom she describes as “looking like a warthog.” In the person of Evan Jonigkeit, he’s quite attractive — albeit very nearly as ill-equipped as Sarah Nancy for courtship rituals. Dolores’ husband, Robert (Devon Abner), interrupts periodically.

Welcome to my parlor: Jonigkeit, Green, and Hallie Foote.

Intriguingly, it’s unclear exactly how old Sarah Nancy is: Green plays her as something of a modern-day teenage slacker, which must make her more immediately recognizable to the New York audience. There’s no mention of her going to college, although we’re told that Dolores went — a rare achievement among Texan women of that generation. But Felix is already selling insurance for a living and considering a change to a second career as a mortician: he’s a grownup, and Sarah Nancy is being groomed as his prospective bride.

There’s an undercurrent of seriousness here: we see that, for all of Dolores’ skill at conversation, her own husband pays scant attention to what she says, and cares less about her ambitions for Sarah Nancy than about the supper Dolores is too busy to prepare. Naturally, no one ever suggests that he make his own supper. Dolores tries to steer Sarah Nancy towards subjects of interest to men in general and to Felix in particular; when she protests, Dolores informs her that “Nobody cares what you’re interested in.” In Harrison society, women’s roles are rigidly circumscribed — as we’ll see again in the final play, The Midnight Caller, set in 1952.

The One-Armed Man: When language fails.
Bobb and Cendese.

The second and shortest of the plays, The One-Armed Man, also set in 1928, introduces us to C.W. Rowe (Jeremy Bobb), manager of a cotton gin, bluntly ignorant of the consequences of his behavior on those around him — beginning with his beleaguered bookkeeper (Abner again, all but unrecognizable). In a nod to contemporary sensibilities, Rowe even cites his membership in a white citizens’ council as an indication of his upstanding position in society. (The New York audience gasped at the mention.) So it’s no surprise that he is so little inclined to help the former employee, McHenry (Alexander Cendese), who lost his arm in a worksite accident.*

Rowe’s offers of charity aren’t enough for McHenry, who demands that Rowe “give me back my arm” — and draws a pistol to make his point. Ever a student of Chekhov, Mr. Foote abides by the Russian rule, and the gun does indeed go off, but not before a storm of increasingly inarticulate “conversation” marked by McHenry’s rage and Rowe’s mounting panic. Even conversation with God — prayer, which is for a small-town Texan perhaps the most familiarly ingrained language — fails.

Employee relations: Bobb and Abner.

At a talkback with the cast following the Wednesday matinée, several audience members pronounced themselves mystified by The One-Armed Man and quizzed Cendese in particular about his character’s purpose. Hallie Foote observed that the play examines class distinctions, and it does, but I wonder whether Mr. Foote’s intent was even more specifically political — writing as he was of a state where “business-friendly” policies mean that, to this day, workmen’s compensation is virtually nonexistent. (Gail Collins underscored that point in her recent book, As Texas Goes.)

An outstanding candidate for the next Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue, Cendese is arguably too handsome to play McHenry, but he’s exactly right as Harvey Weems, the title character of The Midnight Caller: the sort of doomed beauty found in so many stories of small towns in the South. Here, Harvey is a young man of good family whose love for Helen Crews (Jenny Dare Paulin) can’t surmount the opposition of both their families and his budding alcoholism. After four years of “trying,” Helen is ready to move on, but Harry haunts her, standing outside the boarding house where she lives and calling out her name — much to the consternation of the other ladies who live there.

The ladies of the boarding house: Green, Houdyshell, Bacon.

They’re in a tizzy already because a gentleman boarder (Bobb again, infinitely more sympathetic) has moved in; now they’re fearful for their reputations, even as they hope he’ll carry them away. Here Mr. Foote illustrates the effects of one more kind of conversation — namely, gossip — on a community. The ladies tell tales of Helen’s past, and they worry that soon enough, other ladies will talk about them the same way.

None worries more than Alma Jean Jordan (the sublime Mary Bacon), a single working woman as thin-skinned as she is narrow-minded. Trying to appease her are the owner of the boarding house (Hallie Foote again) and two other unmarried boarders, young “Cutie” Spencer (Green again) and a schoolteacher, Miss Rowena Douglas (richly incarnated by Jane Houdyshell, so memorable from last year’s revival of Sondheim’s Follies).

Midnight Caller: Houdyshell and Bobb.

Throughout the production, I enjoyed McKinnon’s astute appreciation for even the smallest details — precisely what one needs from any director in Mr. Foote’s work — her embrace of both the playwright’s humor and his darker themes. She elicits an ease among the actors that really does make them feel they’ve known one another forever. McKinnon makes excellent use of Marion Williams’ set design, in which simple but evocatively decorated walls and a staircase shift to create three different spaces, with a fourth (Helen’s room in the boarding house) convincingly established just by a change in Tyler Micoleau’s lighting design.

Harrison, TX provides first-time visitors with an excellent overview of Mr. Foote’s work, in circumstances that are almost ideal. For those of us who know his work already, a little or a lot, the production offers substantial rewards, as well: the master flexing his muscles, trying a few things he hasn’t tried, while remaining entirely true to himself. In short, I recommend this production to anyone seeking a better understanding of this authentic titan of the American theater.

Harrison, TX runs through 15 September and is just one of several offerings dedicated to Mr. Foote at Primary Stages this season. For more information and tickets, click here.

NOTE: My portrait of Horton Foote appears here. The little essay I wrote on the occasion of his passing appears here.

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28 August 2012

GOP Convention Menaced by Giant Metaphor, Analysts Say

TAMPA, FL -- As the Republican National Convention gets underway here in Tampa, analysts report that proceedings have been threatened by a gigantic metaphor looming on the horizon.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” analyst Herman Eutik told reporters. “Seldom if ever has a political event in this country been menaced by a metaphor of this size and density. I have reason to believe the metaphor has the potential to disrupt the entire convention with massive outbursts of exegesis and commentary.”

Analysts disagree whether the metaphor represents divine disapproval of the Republican party platform; the Bush Administration’s failed response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005; the disenchantment of women voters; the End of Times; or the wrathful spirit of author Ayn Rand. Critics have advised conventioneers to remain calm, but convention organizers truncated the schedule of events to allow for gale-force deconstruction that could potentially overwhelm the Gulf of Mexico.

Aides to the Republican candidates, presumptive nominee Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), insist that the metaphor is a reflection of four years of failed Democratic policies in Washington, the prohibitive cost of Obamacare, and “the objective force of our victory in November’s election.”

“This election is about authority, not ideology,” Romney told a rally in Pensacola earlier this week. “It’s my intention to make this country great again.”

UPDATE: The National Semiotic Service has downgraded the metaphor to a Category 3 Symbol. Area residents and visitors are advised to read all signs closely.

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27 August 2012

Conventional Behavior

Listening to speeches, Chicago 1996.

NOTE: The sad fact is that my experience of nominating conventions hasn’t changed in the slightest since I wrote about them in 2008. After all, it’s not as if I’ve been to any political convention since 1996. But I’ve recently come across a cache of old photographs to illustrate my observations, and so by way of an update, I’m taking the most unusual step of quoting myself — at great length — as the Republican National Convention begins in Tampa.

There are few more reliably poignant reminders that I no longer work in broadcast news than the nominating conventions of the American political parties, which doggedly persist in taking place even though I’m not there to cover them. “Cover” is perhaps the wrong word to use, since it implies that news might actually be involved, which is only rarely and fleetingly the case. Dismayed by the mayhem of the Democratic convention in Chicago, 1968, organizers in both parties began to do their utmost to present to the nation a serenely polished spectacle in which very little would happen of interest to anyone on earth. News organizations continue to pour enormous resources into covering the conventions, however, in the fearful hope, or hopeful fear, that someone may slip up and do something significant.

Oh, the glamour! At work in one of the CBS News trailers
outside the convention space. Probably Chicago, 1996.

I attended five conventions, three Democratic and two Republican, in 1988, 1992, and 1996. At my side on all these excursions was Dan Rather, whose roughing up in Chicago in 1968 has come to symbolize both the mayhem of that week and the last gasp of newsworthiness at any convention. By the time I arrived on the scene, technology had advanced to the point that it was no longer necessary for Dan to wear an elaborate headset like the one he’d worn on the floor of the Chicago convention — but the sight of him in any headset at all was startlingly powerful. He was a television icon, like Spock in his ears or Matt Dillon with his pistol.

He used to roam the halls, greeting delegates and reporters alike with the cheery request to “Call me if any news breaks out.” People would chuckle, but he wasn’t joking. He was likewise serious when he’d say to me, “Take a good look around. This may be the last time.” He didn’t mean the last time for me, but the last time for the networks. Covering a convention is an expensive proposition, and though it’s a gesture of good citizenship, the rewards are few. As conventions get duller, fewer people watch. During my tenure, all three major networks cut back on the hours devoted to convention coverage, and all three cut back on personnel, too. The lavishness of it, by turns circus, parade, and Roman orgy, could not survive.

A winning ticket: WVM and Dan Rather, San Diego, 1996.

I’ve written before about the summer-camp excitement of attending a nominating convention. It’s not unlike a Star Trek convention, too, for we are brought together by a passion that others do not share, and we find thereby a community. We treat as major celebrities people who are not widely known to the general public (“Look, there’s Walter Koenig/Evan Bayh!”), we boast of our knowledge of trivia while speaking arcane languages (Klingonese/policy), we are encouraged to buy overpriced memorabilia (an authentic copy of a phaser/a Pat Buchanan button), and many of the conventioneers feel the need to wear strange costumes (Wisconsin cheese-heads being but one example). Having witnessed both ladies in action, I can assure you that the appearance on the dais of Nichelle Nichols or Barbara Jordan excited a precisely equivalent frenzy among their respective audiences.

At least Star Trek conventions are colorful. At the nominating conventions, our eyes are assaulted by red, white and blue — it’s everywhere — until we get headaches, and in more severe cases, we start to see spots. Pink, purple and green ones. We have regrettably little time to get to know the cities where conventions take place, though my glimpses of Chicago and San Diego in 1996 inspired me to linger through the weekend after each convention had ended, and to return several times on my own. We can’t get into the good restaurants, because big shots like Peter Jennings and Bob Dole got there first. For fear of a security breach, we can’t afford to hook up with attractive conventioneers — but fortunately, there seldom are any. Rob Lowe may have gotten laid in Atlanta in 1988, but I didn’t.

CBS News press rep Kim Akhtar and WVM join Vice-President Gore
in dancing the macarena, from the relative serenity
of the CBS anchor booth. Chicago, 1996.

I miss the conventions. I miss the speeches, which with only one exception (Buchanan in 1992) were incredibly, invariably dull. I miss the foolishness — I miss watching Al Gore dance the macarena. I miss the skullduggery, the wariness accorded to the politicos by the press, and vice-versa, while each side feeds voraciously off the other. I miss the pomposity and audacity (“The next president of the United States, Michael Dukakis!”), the eccentricity (“The great state of Missourah nominates… ”), the pageantry, the inevitable balloons. And I’ll miss it again this year.

I miss Frances Arvold, too. CBS’ late, peerless makeup artist
is seen here in the anchor booth at one of the 1984 conventions.

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26 August 2012

Armstrong Death a NASA Hoax, Conspiracy Theorists Say

“One small step for a stuntman, one giant hoax for Hollywood.”
At Disney Studios, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin
rehearse their 1969 “moon landing.”

HOUSTON, TX -- Reports of the death of Neil Armstrong, allegedly the first man to walk on the moon, are one more example of an elaborate, ongoing hoax perpetrated by the U.S. government, the Tri-Lateral Commission, and Hollywood movie studios, leading conspiracy theorists told reporters today.

“He’s not really dead,” said Thomas J. Doubton, president of the Society for Paranoia Investigations. “It was all done on a soundstage, using advanced techniques developed by NASA in coordination with the Disney people. If you just look at the pictures, you will see that Armstrong is very much alive.”

“It’s all part of an attempt to stimulate nostalgia for the so-called space program,” agreed Doubton’s colleague, G. Gordon Curley, pointing out the uncanny coincidence that Armstrong’s death was reported precisely 43 years, one month, and four days after the elaborately staged “moonwalk.”

Costume by Edith Head.

“In reality, President Obama is just trying to intimidate [Russian President] Vladimir Putin,” Curley said, “in order to prevent the Russians from establishing a base of operations on the moon from which they could use their powerful laser cannons to attack North America.” However, Doubton has disputed Curley’s analysis, saying that no nation on earth currently possesses space-flight technology.

Armstrong, a former stuntman in Hollywood “B” pictures, was recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency in 1962 before entering the top-secret “Operation False Lune” program. Wearing costumes designed by Edith Head, Armstrong and the other “astronauts” in the program received extensive dance training from choreographer Hermes Pan, enabling them to look as if they were moving about a low-gravity environment. In reality, conspiracy theorists say, he never left the United States, much less went to the moon.

“We have reason to believe that Armstrong currently resides in Austin,” Doubton said, “where he enjoys horseback riding and gardening.” NASA intends to deploy Armstrong, under an assumed identity, in a top-secret reconnaissance mission to North Korea this year, just prior to the U.S. presidential elections.

“This ‘October Surprise’ will radically alter the outcome of the election,” Curley said. “I’m not free to say more.”

Doubton added that he has been unable to confirm reports that Armstrong was recently stripped of several cycling medals on the grounds that he used rear-projections and computer graphics technology to fake his participation in the Tour de France.

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25 August 2012

An Update from Lisa Simeone

In October, Lisa Simeone, the host of a National Public Radio program, World of Opera, found herself the object of controversy when her activities with the Occupy Wall Street movement became known. Despite the fact that Simeone was a freelancer, hosting a program in which her politics were not only irrelevant but virtually impossible to communicate — and despite the fact that her OWS activity was unpaid and conducted on her own time — conservative critics called for her dismissal. Rather than take a stand for free speech and risk reprisals in Congress, NPR capitulated, dropping World of Opera. (With Simeone as host, World of Opera is still produced by North Carolina station WDAV and distributed to individual stations.)

In solidarity with Simeone, I wrote a satirical essay here, speculating on what might have happened if Milton Cross, the legendary host of the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday afternoon radio program, had come under comparable attack. Simeone recently came across the essay, and she’s provided us with an update on her story, which I published in the “Comments” section of that essay and which, to make sure you see them, I’ll republish here, below.

Simeone’s experience reminds me of the sad case of the late David Wojnarowicz and his short film, Fire in My Belly, part of an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, entitled “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” in 2010. At the merest whisper of controversy, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, G. Wayne Clough, removed the film from the exhibit. (When “Hide/Seek” came to the Brooklyn Museum last winter, the curators restored Fire in My Belly to the exhibit.)

Clough faced some brutal criticism for a while, yet the lesson seemed clear, and surely it informed the decision making at NPR in Simeone’s case: the costs of cowardice are easier to pay than the costs of conflict with Congress. And the right-wingers have learned the lesson, too: it doesn’t take much to intimidate government entities that are ostensibly dedicated to art and free speech.

It’s almost enough to make one hope that Mitt Romney is elected and makes good on his campaign promises to cut funding for broadcasting and the arts. But if these McCarthyite tactics prove successful at NPR, the National Endowment, the Smithsonian, and PBS, who’s to say where the blacklisting and witch hunts will end?

Here’s what Lisa Simeone had to say:
I just stumbled on this and wanted to say thank you. For both the support and the laughs!

You have joined an illustrious cadre that also includes James Poniewozik of Time Magazine and Erik Wemple of the Washington Post, both of whom wrote hilarious spoofs of purported “partisan” broadcasts.

The most important element in all this — besides the fact that I was, yes, blacklisted by NPR, is that several prominent NPR reporters and hosts have actual, on-going conflicts of interest, yet nobody bats an eye, least of all NPR. Scott Simon can write his pro-war op-eds and make pro-war speeches, and it’s all okay. Etc.

Here’s the statement I issued to the press last year:

“I find it puzzling that NPR objects to my exercising my rights as an American citizen — the right to free speech, the right to peaceable assembly — on my own time in my own life. I’m not an NPR employee. I’m a freelancer. NPR doesn’t pay me. I’m also not a news reporter. I don’t cover politics. I’ve never brought a whiff of my political activities into the work I’ve done for NPR World of Opera. What is NPR afraid I’ll do — insert a seditious comment into a synopsis of Madame Butterfly?

“This sudden concern with my political activities is also surprising in light of the fact that Mara Liaason reports on politics for NPR yet appears as a commentator on FoxTV, Scott Simon hosts an NPR news show yet writes political op-eds for national newspapers, Cokie Roberts reports on politics for NPR yet accepts large speaking fees from businesses. Does NPR also send out “Communications Alerts” about their activities?

In other words, “All Animals Are Equal, But Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others.”

Thanks again for the shout-out.
And this follow-up:
I managed to hang onto two radio gigs (World of Opera and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra), and I still write for Style Magazine here in Charm City…. I continue to be politically active, as I have been my whole life (and as many people at NPR and Soundprint have always known about me).

In a move reminiscent of Stalinist Russia, NPR actually went so far as to purge my voice from existing NPR programs. I kid you not. Christmas, Hanukkah, etc. specials, shows that get repeated every year, where I did only the most minor interstitial stuff — they purged my voice and had somebody else re-do the narration.

You can't make this stuff up.

More’s the pity, say I!

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24 August 2012

Judge Head’s Other Worst-Case Scenarios

Judge Tom Head.

LUBBOCK, TX -- Lubbock County Judge Tom Head — 2009 recipient of the Judge Learned Hand Foundation prize for “Judge Named after a Body Part Least Likely to Be Described As ‘Learned’” — finds himself the object of national attention this week after hypothesizing about the possible consequences of the reelection of President Barack Obama. According to news reports,
“He’s going to try to hand over the sovereignty of the United States to the U.N., and what is going to happen when that happens?” Head asked. “I’m thinking the worst. Civil unrest, civil disobedience, civil war maybe. And we’re not just talking a few riots here and demonstrations, we’re talking Lexington, Concord, take up arms and get rid of the guy.

“Now what’s going to happen if we do that, if the public decides to do that? He’s going to send in U.N. troops. I don’t want ’em in Lubbock County. OK. So I’m going to stand in front of their armored personnel carrier and say, ‘You’re not coming in here’.”
Judge Head later complained that his remarks had been taken out of context, explaining that, as the county’s emergency management director, he is obliged to consider “worst-case scenarios” that would require response from the local government. These include — but are not limited to — tornadoes, epidemic, terrorist attack, and nuclear war.

Asked to share some of the other worst-case scenarios for which Lubbock County should prepare, Judge Head offered several examples.

One source of potential concern.

School board eliminates football program.
“This is just an example of the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that you have to do when you are the emergency management director. I mean, realistically, we know that there is absolutely no chance that the Lubbock I.S.D. is going to eliminate the football program. But if that were to happen, then I would work with the sheriff’s department, place the school board under arrest, and order the entire district under the direction of a well-armed militia and a couple of junior-varsity coaches. Among the civilian population, we would have to expect a certain amount of rioting and possibly armed retaliation, especially until we were able to get the word out that the football program would in fact remain in place, and so we would require security checkpoints, roadblocks, and a curfew of some sort.”

First Baptist opts for sprinkling instead of immersion.
“Obviously we would call in the National Guard, but limited air strikes might be necessary, also.”

That Whataburger over on Quaker Avenue closes.
“Immediately, it would be impossible to get a hamburger at 3 AM on Quaker Ave., unless of course you know somebody who’s awake at that hour who happens to have some hamburger and doesn’t mind cooking it up for you. But it still wouldn’t taste as good as Whataburger, probably, because you need the right kind of mustard. And if you didn’t know anybody who was awake, you might have to drive all the way over to 50th St. In such an event, I would recommend the immediate implementation of martial law.”

Election of a Democrat to public office.
“This requires different responses, contingent on the nature of the office in question. If it’s a local matter, then the sheriff would place the Democrat under arrest, I would declare the election invalid, and we’d hold a new election as soon as possible. If it’s statewide, then obviously we would barricade the county, arm every citizen who isn’t already armed, and secede immediately. I believe I’ve already made clear our policy in case of a national election. Ideally, however, you prevent this kind of situation prior to any election, maybe using voter restrictions or possibly some sort of elaborate redistricting.”

Bill Madison moves back to Texas.
“I don’t even like to think about the possibility of this one, but it’s my duty as a public servant to be prepared for any kind of emergency. What would happen is, you would see the rivers run red with blood and a great darkness cast upon the land unto the seventh generation. Children would be torn from their mothers, cattle would fall sick with murrain, and crops would wither in the fields. This would be a clear sign of God’s disfavor; there’s really no hope after that. So I would call on the sheriff’s department to distribute suicide pills to every U.S. citizen in the county who is able to provide valid identification. We’d probably have to let the Mexicans fend for themselves, poor souls.”

Truly, we love Lubbock: Susan Graham went to school there.

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21 August 2012

Sondheim’s ‘Into the Woods’ in Central Park

Children Will Narrate: Broderick (center), with the ensemble cast.

That Stephen Sondheim’s fairy-tale musical Into the Woods survives its current revival — perversely timed to coincide with the show’s 25th anniversary — in Central Park is testament to the fundamental strengths of a piece that is in many ways (and like virtually every other work Sondheim has produced for the stage) flawed in many important respects. No matter how director Timothy Sheader abuses the staging and misinterprets the book (by James Lapine), and no matter how tired I am of hearing conductor Paul Gemignani play Sondheim’s music, Into the Woods retains much of its charm. Indeed, I’m not sure I appreciated just how strong the show really is, before I saw what Sheader did to it.

That said, my reaction was typical of my experiences with the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park productions, which I’ve avoided for many years now: tired of stunt celebrity casting and inept direction, I simply couldn’t be bothered to endure the lines for free tickets, the variable weather conditions and tinny amplification in the open air. I didn’t lose my admiration for Shakespeare, and I don’t plan on abandoning Sondheim now, but the rewards didn’t justify the continued disappointments. In this case, I had to overcome an additional obstacle: namely, memories of the original Broadway production, which I saw on opening night.

Sheader starts by misunderstanding Lapine’s two-act structure: in Act I, we’re introduced to the characters and their stories, and we see them arrive at a “happily ever after” ending; in Act II, we see what happens after, and in the process we de- and reconstruct the stories, exploring the consequences of the compromises our heroes have made. (Lapine uses a similar two-part structure in Sunday in the Park with George, his earlier collaboration with Sondheim.) By wrenching the fairy tales out of their context, by modernizing them, sexing them up, and toughening them (far beyond the somewhat cynical treatment Lapine and Sondheim give them), Sheader pretty much has no place left to go by the time he gets to Act II, overlong already and here meandering and dragging to the edge of pointlessness.

There Will Be Beans: Jack (Gideon Glick) trades his cow.
Puppets by Rachel Canning lent imaginative fun to the production.

And while I don’t object to the selection of a child (Jack Broderick) to play the Narrator, I did find the framing device (the boy runs away from his father and hides in the woods) unhelpful and the extra stage business (he uses toys, too small to be seen from Row R, to tell the fairy tales) complicating of narration that is, after all, supposed to keep the plotlines clear. The toys, like the Narrator’s physical interventions in the drama, made the staging busier and persistently stole focus from the principal action.

Compound all of this with a stupefying misreading of the show’s central characters, the Baker and his Wife, miscast with actors who in other circumstances are admirable, and you’ve got a mess on your hands. Yet several of the other performances are sterling, Sondheim’s music and lyrics are appealing, and John Lee Beatty and Soutra Gilmour’s treehouse set is a perfect fit both for the play and for the Park. Luckiest of all for Sheader, the audience, this writer included, really wants to enjoy the show.

Flour Power? O’Hare and Adams as the Baker and his Wife.

You wonder how this project got approved by the Public. The production is based on one Sheader originated in London’s Regent’s Park, two years ago, but revamped for New York. Was the first any smarter or more successful than the second? Or was it merely convenient? Or, like John Doyle’s recent Broadway revivals of Sweeney Todd and Company, was this yet another case in which the producers know Sondheim’s work so well that they’re bored by it and don’t really care whether it’s presented intelligibly, so long as it’s different?

Here’s an example of how things have gone wrong at the Delacorte. In the original production, the Wolf’s first number, “Hello, Little Girl,” succeeded in part by surprise: we didn’t expect the Red Riding Hood story to be sexy, and yet this Wolf delivered an unctuously suggestive and very funny pick-up routine. In Sheader’s staging, however, everything is sexy already, and Sarah Stiles’ lustily Lolita-esque Little Red (easily the best performance in the show, I hasten to observe) is no innocent: no matter how Ivan Hernandez, as the Wolf, slinks and bumps and grinds, the song simply doesn’t make the same impact.

Adams in Enchanted.
I hope this isn’t the last that New York theater (or Central Park, for that matter) will see of her. She’s got so much to offer.

Hitherto I’d believed Denis O’Hare to be capable of absolutely anything as an actor, but now I have discovered one shortcoming: he can’t generate onstage chemistry with Amy Adams, a charming movie actress making a rare stage appearance that is also her New York debut. As the Baker and his Wife, they’re entirely misdirected: the Wife is supposed to dominate the Baker, not in an unpleasant way but by dint of her superior sense and determination. When he observes, “I’ve depended on her for everything,” he really means it, and not only in an emotional context. In the original production, the great Joanna Gleason may not really have been a foot taller than Chip Zien, but she seemed it; here, Adams practically recedes into the woodchips on the floor.

While she’s not the world’s most confident singer, and while her upper register may not attain quite the heights that the role of Cinderella requires, you do wonder why Adams wasn’t cast in that other role. She might have been marvelous, and she could have had good fun recalling the last time she sang a fairy tale in Central Park, in the Disney movie Enchanted. O’Hare encounters particular difficulty when singing harmony, especially in “You Are Not Alone,” but otherwise he’s so assured onstage that he can’t even meet Adams halfway. “It Takes Two,” as their duet says — and the number falls short of the mark here.

Moreover, the Baker and his Wife are intended to represent the “contemporary urban American” voices in this show. As Sondheim observes in an excerpt from Look, I Made a Hat, his memoir, quoted in the program, this couple’s concerns are mundane — and entirely like ours. Their responses to the curses, fantasy, and whimsy of the fairy tale are much like what ours would be. When every single character is dressed in contemporary urban clothing (designed by Emily Rebholz), then the stage director is already providing the kind of comment on the action that’s supposed to belong to the Baker and his Wife exclusively.

Red-hot Broadway: The Great Donna Murphy, in Act II.

Donna Murphy fares considerably better as the Witch, striking just the right balance between hamminess, when she terrorizes the other characters, and tenderness, when she interacts with her “daughter,” Rapunzel.* Murphy commands our attention whether she’s swathed in crone drag or slinking around in a glamorous gown. A true star, she sings with such individuality and character, rangy, slightly slurring even while her consonants remain crisp. Though I often decry the lack of authentic divas among the younger generations of Broadway artists (and sometimes describe Bernadette as the last of this endangered species), I must remember: we’ve still got Donna.

In addition to Stiles as Little Red, I admired Kristine Zbornik (as Jack’s Mother) and warmed to Jessie Mueller (as Cinderella); Ellen Harvey proved amusing as Cinderella’s Stepmother, and no less than Zien himself fought against hyperactive stage direction (presumably by co-director Liam Steel) and heavy makeup to make an impression as the Mysterious Man. The Princes’ duet, “Agony,” my favorite number in the show, received spirited renditions from Hernandez and Cooper Grodin.

In that number, I understand one Prince’s quotations of Rapunzel’s signature “Ah ah ah” as a musical springboard into the next iteration of the cry of “Agony!” Here, however, the ideas were discrete, and it brings us to the subject of Gemignani. With no disrespect intended either to that gentleman or to his long history with Sondheim, I am eager to hear more often somebody else tackle this composer’s work.

Because Gemignani conducts most original productions and revivals and concert performances of Sondheim, we have but scant notion how another musician might interpret the scores. Ultimately, the persistent favoritism shown to Gemignani is less a tribute to an historic collaboration than a disservice to audiences and to Sondheim’s reputation as a serious composer.

Members of the original Broadway cast, 1987.
In the foreground, you can see Bernadette Peters, with Danielle Ferland, Chip Zien, and Joanna Gleason just behind her.
All the way in the background is Edmund Lyndeck, the original Judge Turpin in Sweeney Todd, here playing Cinderella’s Father.

It’s conceivable, for example, that another conductor might find ways to propel the show’s long, long final sequence (made longer here by the reprise of Sheader’s framing device). Much of that length is the fault of Lapine as a book writer, who can’t quite tie up all the loose ends. And yet as a stage director he achieved something in the original production with which Sheader seems altogether unfamiliar: magic.

Oh, how we marveled at the original production! And not only Bernadette and Joanna’s justly legendary performances, but also Kim Crosby’s Cinderella and Danielle Ferland’s unforgettable Little Red, and Westenberg’s Wolf and Ben Wright’s Jack. In 1987, this show was bigger than a fight between a little boy and his father, as Sheader would have it; it was about inventing family from scratch when it seemed that no one else was left to care for us. Back then, when the Giant’s Wife thundered around the stage, we understood what Sondheim and Lapine were trying to tell us about fairy tales and growing up. We saw AIDS and the threat of nuclear war, and because “children will listen,” we believed, for a few hours at least, that “no one is alone.”

This show will survive, and it deserves to. Not unlike the rest of us.

Inventing a family: Mueller (Cinderella), Stiles (Little Red), Gideon Glick (Jack), and O’Hare (Baker).

*NOTE: Donna Murphy played the witch in a Rapunzel story once before, and very differently, in the Disney animated movie Tangled.

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20 August 2012

Lady Parts Are Magic

By Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO),
Candidate for U.S. Senate,
Guest Columnist

My fellow Americans, I misspoke. As you may know, the other day I was talking with an interviewer about a topic in which I am expert: lady parts. I have made a great study of this subject. I know so much about lady parts — more than any lady I’ve ever met, I hasten to add — that I feel perfectly comfortable telling ladies what to do with their lady parts.

For example, if a lady becomes pregnant due to rape, then she should not be allowed to have an abortion. After all, in a legitimate rape, which is to say a rape that the lady doesn’t actually want to have, then she will not get pregnant, so she doesn’t need an abortion. And if she does get pregnant, then it means that she enjoyed herself, and actually wanted to have the rape, and so she ought to have the baby. It’s that simple.

Some of the greatest medical minds of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries are in complete agreement with me on this point. And I am not one of those politicians who disregard science. Far from it! As I told that interviewer, I have it on good authority that a lady’s lady parts can block an unwanted fertilization during an unwanted rape, because lady parts have a well-known magical ability to identify unwanted man parts. It’s also an equally well-known scientific fact that ladies do not get pregnant if they do not experience pleasure in the act of whoopee. You can look this up.

Moreover, we see the evidence every day, because it’s the promiscuous ladies who enjoy the act of whoopee who ask for birth control and abortions and who use their lady parts to control the minds of menfolk. Whereas righteous ladies who do not enjoy whoopee do not need to worry about getting pregnant, and they do not practice witchcraft with their lady parts. Do you see the distinction?

As a matter of principle, I do not feel that this nation should reward witches who abuse the magic of their lady parts. The righteous solution is righteous abstinence, not trifling with the sanctity of human life. If a lady doesn’t want to birth demon spawn, or a goat’s head, or anything of that sort, why then, it’s perfectly simple: she should not experience pleasure when she is forcibly raped.

I could not have more sympathy for ladies who do not enjoy rapes that they did not want. By which I mean that I tried to have more sympathy, but I could not.

Make no mistake, our contemporary society is sliding down a slippery slope, where married ladies accuse their husbands of rape all the time, even though all they’re trying to do is get a bigger divorce settlement. These devilish divorcing women cast a spell on judges and juries, making it so that rape seems like a potentially bad thing, and not the natural practice of submission to a man, as our loving God intended.

There are many other magical things that ladies can do with their lady parts, such as ruining crops, causing hailstorms and earthquakes, and running the U.S. State Department. But I will save that discussion for another day. My real purpose today is just to explain to you what I meant when I said what I said.

When you understand lady parts as well as I do, you will see that there’s no reason for all this fuss. Please remember to vote for me in November. Thank you.

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William Windom’s World and Welcome to It

Windom with his My World co-stars Joan Hotchkiss
and Lisa Gerritsen.

Looking over photographs of the actor William Windom, who died last week at the age of 88, I’m unable now to spot precisely what it was about him that reminded me so much of my father, when I was a boy. The physical resemblance was nowhere near as great as that between my mother and Patricia Neal, upon which people other than myself used to comment quite often; in character, Windom tended to be a good deal more demonstrative in his emotions than Dad, nicknamed “Plato,” ever was. And yet upon hearing of Windom’s death, I do feel a loss.

A handful of performances define him for me, starting with his starring role in the short-lived sitcom My World and Welcome to It, based on the work of James Thurber. The show ran for a single season, from 1969–70, but in discussing Windom with friends my age (or nearly), I’m struck by how many of us watched then and remember now: in a universe with only three television networks, the chances of a “shared experience” were excellent, and probably any network today would be thrilled to find a show with as big an audience as My World — which was cancelled for lack of viewers.

Dad might have preferred that we think of him as Gregory Peck — and on good days, we did — but he never discouraged us from seeing him as William Windom.

In My World Windom projected a dash of weariness, a dash of bafflement, and of course a great running stream of fantasy, abetted by animation in Thurber’s style — but as a child I saw virtually nothing of the darkness that runs through Thurber’s original material, which as a result startled me when I came to read it a few years later. Surely some of this brighter mood stemmed from a decision by the producers that a television audience needed something gentler to hold onto, week after week. For example, wives in Thurber’s work are irrational monsters, but who could object to the elegant Joan Hotchkiss, playing Windom’s wife here?*

Windom won some:
With his Emmy Award for My World in 1970.

As I grew up, I kept running across Windom, notably as the obsessive Commodore Matt Decker in “The Doomsday Machine,” one of those original Star Trek episodes in which the cheesiness of the special effects (the machine in question looks like a tube of aluminum foil squished at one end — and that’s probably what it was) is overridden by the sheer craft of the other elements of the production: suspenseful direction, surprisingly insightful writing, and a certain loopy grandeur in the acting.

As Commodore Decker.

Here Windom toyed with the kind of inner steadiness that he brought to bear in so many other roles, and that I’ll always associate with him — and with my father. Because the Commodore is William Windom, we understand the enormity of the horror he’s witnessed: he’s a hysterical mess, which is not what we expect William Windom to be. Seeming to regain his bearing, he takes command of the Enterprise, but he’s still a basket case, and here again the stakes are raised. If that paragon of sensible behavior William Windom has lost his mind, then the Enterprise is truly in jeopardy.

As Decker again, looking absolutely nothing like my father.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, a film that features a number of actors who went on to play in the Star Trek universe, Windom is the wily prosecutor, playing very, very big. It’s the paradox of To Kill a Mockingbird that the film remains so credible even when all the forces arrayed against Atticus and Tom are drawn so broadly: how could anybody side with them against the noble, even superhuman restraint of Gregory Peck and Brock Peters? And yet in the real world, the bad guys weren’t always so instantly recognizable (or so hammy), and just as in this movie, the good guys lost. How we react to such reversals defines the grownups we become.

Late in life Windom found a recurring role as the crusty doctor of Cabot Cove in Murder, She Wrote, opposite Angela Lansbury’s Jessica Fletcher. The show was almost a comedy, and though heavyset now and quite a bit older, Windom danced nimbly among the piled-up corpses and celebrity suspects. Steady employment on a top-rated show must have been a nice way to cap off a long and varied career — of which the performances I’ve cited here are just a few highlights.

With Lansbury, in Murder, She Wrote.

He told the New York Times that his proudest achievement was playing Richard III, at the American University in Biarritz, following his army service in World War II. While I never doubted his range, I wouldn’t have imagined him a Gloucester, and that’s one indication that, like most actors and very much like my Dad, he left much of his true self concealed from our view. Windom pops up all the time in movies and television, and we never know precisely what to expect from him: and yet we’re glad to see him, no matter what story he enacts for us. Seeing how fondly he’s remembered by so many of my friends, I wonder whether he knew how much we cared.

*NOTE: It seems that absolutely everybody my age found it easy to cherish Windom’s daughter, played by Lisa Gerritsen. She of course went on to enduring renown as the precociously levelheaded Bess Lindstrom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Phyllis. But who among us remembers that she wore a retainer on My World and Welcome to It?

UPDATE: For more information on My World and Welcome to It, I direct you to this site, as informative as it is entertaining. You’re sure to wind up wishing the show had lasted longer.

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18 August 2012

On Singing in Bars

Start spreading the news: You are not this man.
This man could sing. This man is dead.

Having spent time (or done time, if you prefer) in some of Greenwich Village’s more musical watering holes lately, I have learned several important lessons. First is that approximately 98 percent of New Yorkers believe themselves to be Frank Sinatra. But of greater urgency to me personally is the lesson that to be a music writer in a karaoke bar requires the acting ability of an Olivier. “Karaoke” is of course a Japanese word meaning, “I can’t find the pitch,” and unless you want to get into a bar fight, you must develop the survival skill of smiling brightly no matter how bad the singing is.

Extra beer helps in this regard, though you must remember at all times that it is beer that encouraged these other people to get up and start singing. Drink too much, and you could become one of them.

Curiously, the folks who sing in piano bars tend to be more capable. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that the pianist, a living person with musical training, is seated right next to you, whereas in karaoke of course the music is pre-recorded, often by people in Japan, which is about as far from Greenwich Village as you can get. Thus, if the karaoke instrumentalists glare at you, you are not likely to see them.

Victoria Chase, the glamorous, gender-bending hostess of a couple of karaoke nights each week at Boots & Saddles on Christopher Street, might be expected to glare, too, since she is herself no slouch at singing, with a range extending from truck-driver basso to dog-whistle falsetto. But in her role as mistress of ceremonies, Miss Chase practices such artful diplomacy that neither the karaoke participants nor this observer can guess what she truly thinks of a singer. I have urged her to seek daytime employment at the United Nations.

Victoria Chase:
Ambassador from the Nation of People Who Can Sing
to the Democratic Republic of Karaoke.

Around the corner on Grove Street is Marie’s Crisis, which, night in and night out, draws an exceptionally talented crowd, composed of people who have — or ought to have — bona fide Broadway credits on their résumés. Sing-alongs do make it easier for weak singers to hide (trust me, I know), but I seldom hear a note go astray, and the solos are always impressive. Marie’s hires good pianists, too, most of whom barely need songbooks and sheet music to command a repertory spanning about a century of musical comedy. There’s a fellow named Jeff Williams who plays on Monday nights; not content merely to play piano, he manages to get the sound of a full symphony orchestra and a jazz band out of Marie’s upright: he’s nothing short of astonishing. And he knows all the words, too.

Upstairs at the Stonewall on Friday nights, my friend Ben has been hosting a karaoke evening for a couple of years now. I’ve observed that the best singers here tend to be heterosexual — and I have no way to account for this anomaly — and that one key to a successful karaoke evening is to crank up the volume. This encourages non-singing customers to speak more loudly, to drink more, and to pay less attention to the singing.

Levels appear to be important, too, and both at Boots and at Stonewall I’ve noticed that the instrumental tracks typically are played slightly louder than the microphone — so that there’s less chance of actually hearing the singer over the song. This has drawbacks, especially when the singer is good. Take my young friend Zak, one-quarter Japanese but thoroughly Western looking, whose fluent renditions of Japanese standards at Boots would be even more impressive (not to mention startling) if his voice were placed forward over the instrumental tracks. Mixing is more than most karaoke DJs can handle; maybe Zak will get a club gig — or his own Japanese TV show — one of these days.

Generally I prefer the division of labor I find in cabarets, where one person does the singing and everybody else does the drinking, and where belting is most often reserved for our trousers. Yet who am I to deny the inner divas of so many, many tipsy New Yorkers? So I keep smiling, and smiling, and smiling.

In all likelihood, you are not this woman, either.
Now aren’t you glad we cleared that up?

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17 August 2012

Mars Rover Discovers Intelligent Life Forms Are Sick of Hearing about Stewart–Pattinson Breakup Already

The Curiosity rover, shortly before it was bombarded by aliens begging the Earth to change the channel.

HOUSTON -- Scientists at the Johnson Space Center today confirmed that the Curiosity rover, the robotic device currently exploring Gale Crater on Mars, has made contact with intelligent life forms, proving that there is literally no one in the galaxy who hasn’t already heard more than enough about Robert Pattinson’s split with Kristen Stewart.

“We have long believed that extraterrestrial life forms were capable of intercepting, understanding, and monitoring communications from the Earth, especially those in the form of radio waves,” NASA spokesman Zefram Cochrane told reporters. “Curiosity’s contact with sentient life forms supports that hypothesis, while also underscoring the degree to which other life forms are not only fully aware of but also thoroughly fed up with the breakup between the popular Twilight actors.”

Curiosity’s findings suggest that life forms on Mars, as well as other locations in space, have been subjected to a ceaseless onslaught of data about Stewart’s infidelity with married Snow White and the Huntsman director Rupert Sanders and her subsequent firing from the planned sequel to that film; Pattinson’s departure from the home he shared with Stewart and the refuge he has found with actress Reese Witherspoon; actress–director Jodie Foster’s ringing defense of Stewart; Pattinson’s attempts to publicize his latest film, Cosmopolis, without discussing his personal life; potential ramifications for the forthcoming release of the final installment of the Twilight series, Breaking Dawn: Part II; and the ice cream he shared with The Daily Show anchor Jon Stewart (no relation).

“There is literally nothing that extraterrestrial life forms do not know already about RPatz and that mouth-breathing slut,” Cochrane said. “They are also pretty much doctoral-level experts on Jennifer Aniston’s engagement to Justin Theroux.”

The Curiosity rover is equipped with a mobile scientific laboratory, permitting NASA scientists to analyze Mars’ atmosphere and geology while also transmitting photographic images of the planet’s surface that make excellent screen savers. While the rover is also designed to seek out biosignatures, the chemical building blocks of life, Cochrane confirmed that no one at NASA ever expected extraterrestrials to attempt direct contact with the Curiosity rover, or to be so saturated with the latest gossip from Hollywood.

“We thought they might have heard about Liz and Dick [Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton], stuff from 40 years ago,” Cochrane said, “maybe even the Tom Cruise–Katie Holmes divorce, but nothing like this. It’s as if they’re trapped in TMZ, the poor souls.”

Cochrane went on to explain that increased use of satellite communications on Earth means that transmissions from this planet reach space much faster than was previously believed. The vast majority of these are concerned with how Robert Pattinson can mend his broken heart.

The Pioneer Plaque was designed to give extraterrestrial life forms
a favorable image of Earth.
“Now all they’ll want to know is why Taylor Lautner isn’t in the picture, too,” Cochrane said.

“Personally, I had hoped that the Voyager gold record would be the first thing that other life forms learned about our planet,” Cochrane said. “It might have given them a better impression of our species than billions and billions of reports on the trampy behavior of a relatively uninteresting young actress and her manorexic ex-boyfriend.”

NASA scientists confirmed that unspecified intelligent life forms have threatened to destroy the Earth if humans do not stop talking about Kristen Stewart. “This makes them very, very angry,” Cochrane said. “I urge the people of Earth to change the subject already. The aliens seem to like James Franco; maybe we should talk more about him instead.”

We’re blocking his view of Oz: The Great and Powerful.

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15 August 2012

Andy Cohen & ‘Most Talkative’

Behind the scenes: Andy Cohen, WVM, Don Imus, Fred Imus,
and Dan Rather in Monument Valley.
Surely it’s not only because of the background that we look like the cast of a forgotten John Ford movie.

I’ve noted before that, upon returning to the U.S. after several years in France, I often felt like Rip Van Winkle: so much had changed while I was away! Suddenly every magazine cover was filled with unfamiliar names and faces — celebrities, it appeared, though I knew nothing about them.

Attempting to find my way again, I sent a Facebook friend request to a sometime workout buddy and former colleague from CBS News, Andy Cohen. He accepted immediately. Only when I went to his Facebook page and discovered that the man has thousands of friends did I begin to understand that Andy himself was not only responsible for the creation of dozens of these new superstars — he’d become one himself.

As a producer of reality TV series on the Bravo network (working with a distinguished Brown classmate, Lauren Zalaznick), Andy has made household names of countless “Real Housewives” (one of whom, NeNe Leakes, has had a recurring role on Glee), and lately Andy’s been hosting his own talk show, Watch What Happens Live. I look around and suddenly he’s grinning at me from posters all over the New York subway and nearly every phone booth in the city. Seizing the moment, Andy’s written a memoir, Most Talkative: Stories from the Front Lines of Pop Culture, and naturally I hastened to pick it up and find out more about what my friend had been up to all this time.*

Author! Author!

For most of its chapters, Most Talkative strikes me almost as a time capsule: if you want to know what it was like to be a junior player in a network newsroom during the last fleeting hours of glory, before the whole industry was transformed and a certain way of doing business was gone with the wind — Andy’s the guy to tell you the story. He leaves out none of the anxiety and none of the fun. Moving up the ladder at The Early Show, CBS This Morning, and 48 Hours, Andy brought spectacular enthusiasm even to the most mundane tasks, and along the way he encountered some of the more colorful personalities in America.

One of these was Dan Rather, and Andy provides a terrifically entertaining chapter on one adventure: steering Dan into the great Southwest for a story on the radio host Don Imus and his charitable work. Careening around Monument Valley while balancing the needs of two prickly stars, Andy really earned his paycheck — and never more so than the return trip to New York, when Dan’s plane sank into the overheated runway and had to be abandoned.

What Andy neglects to tell his readers is that a few folks other than Dan, Imus, and he were along for the ride, and while I don’t doubt that he took very seriously his responsibility for Dan’s agenda and good humor, I must point out that Andy had back-up — to a degree Andy was back-up, because Dan’s needs were my primary responsibility, not his. (That’s why I was sent on trips like this one: to relieve the producer of at least some of the pressure.) I’m not terribly hurt by the omission, honest — after all, Andy doesn’t mention Imus’ wife or his late brother, Fred, either — but I don’t mind taking this opportunity to set the record straight on an otherwise minor detail.

Moving into the more recent phase of his career, Andy spins plenty of entertaining yarns about the personalities he’s worked with since CBS News. Most of these folks are still unfamiliar to me, even now, and in terms of lasting significance, I’m not sure they stack up with people like — well, like Dan Rather. But the stories are fun, and they help to chart Andy’s remarkable success story.

As a writer he’s slightly more formal than he is as a conversationalist, and yet Most Talkative does give you an idea of how much fun a conversation with Andy Cohen could be. I always did enjoy his company. So did other people, and that’s surely one reason he’s risen to the top today. But it’s important to note that, for all of Andy’s wit and pizzazz, he’s also a smart, driven professional who figures out every angle and makes the pieces come together. When that plane failed us in the desert — Andy made sure that Dan Rather got back to The CBS Evening News on time.

And so, while I imagine that a number of younger readers especially, their heads filled with fables from TMZ and People Magazine and God knows what else, will look at Andy’s career and think, “Hey, I could translate my passionate interest in pop culture into a major career, too,” I offer this warning:

The only way to do what Andy Cohen does, is to be Andy Cohen himself. And I can guarantee you, there’s nobody else like him on earth.

WVM in Monument Valley, photo by Andy Cohen (to the best of my recollection).

*NOTE: Most Talkative came out in May. I’d have published this essay earlier, but I couldn’t find the darned pictures from Monument Valley.

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