This afternoon I went to a matinee performance of the play An Act of God, written by David Javerbaum. The show opened on Broadway with an acclaimed, but limited run with Jim Parsons, of The Big Bang Theory. A few months ago, I was having dinner with a friend who'd seen the show and loved it, saying that no one could play the role. Though I of course hadn't seen the show, I disagreed, on general principle, but also from what I'd seen in clips. That night, coming home from the dinner, I opened my mailbox and, in what can only be described as an act of God, there was a flyer announcing the producing in Los Angeles, with Sean Hayes (of Will and Grace) to star. I immediately wrote to my friend with the news, and he admitted that, yes, that's really good casting.
And so it was. The show is hilarious and even thoughtful, and Hayes is a gem. I'd have loved seeing Jim Parsons in the role, but there are a lot of people I'd love to see in the role, because it's that kind of part than an actor can put their imprint on.
At heart, though, it's just wonderfully written. David Javerbaum is a former headwriter of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and has won 13 Emmy Awards. He also has the hilarious @TheTweetofGod account on Twitter (which has over two million followers -- and highly recommended.)
The premise is that God has taken over the body of Sean Hayes, who doesn't know his body has been inhabited. That way, God can directly address the audience in corporal form. There are two other actors, playing the Archangel Michael (who roams the audience with a microphone sensing their thoughts and asking questions he can tell they want asked -- but also periodically asking God questions that he wants ask, often pissing off God in the process) and the Archangel Gabriel, who largely deals with passages from the Bible and helping present the new Ten Commandments that God wants to address throughout the show. But this is mainly a star turn, and that means it's Sean Hayes's show. He has 98% of the script, so it's close to a one-man, one act (no intermission) performance.
A running theme throughout the show is that God wants you do know that he doesn't really care all that much about you. He doesn't want to hear your problems. ("I know what your problems are. I'm God.") He doesn't want to answer your prayers. He doesn't want you telling Him what to do. ("When someone sneezes and emits mucus into the air, don't tell me to bless them. The word is 'gezundheit.'") He doesn't want you calling out His name every time you have sex. He doesn't care in the slightest about any sporting event and will never impose himself to affect who wins or loses, He just couldn't care less -- though He does admit He cares about the betting spread, and sometimes will get involved there. He certainly doesn't need you killing people in his name -- He can kill all on his own just fine, thank you. ("I wiped out everybody with the flood. If I want to kill someone, I can do it. I'm God.")
God also chides the audience for believing everything in the Bible, and singles out how hilarious it is that people actually believe He supposedly put two of every animal onto Noah’s Ark. That’s ridiculous, He notes. Even a small-sized zoo is larger than the ark, and those only have a tiny portion of the animals in the world. Instead, He notes that the ark only had two puppies. ("When you're stuck down below deck on a long trip, you want something cuddly to snuggle with.")
There's a great passage when Archangel Michael begins asking God a series of pressing, harsh questions about things like why let anyone die, why let children die, why do bad things happen to good people, and he keeps adding to the list, getting angrier and angrier, ignoring God telling him to move on, and then more questions and more -- until finally God explodes at him and in great fury says, "Okay, you want an answer??! It's because I created Man in my image, and I'm an asshole. Look at the Bible, look at all the things I do in there that are awful." And he runs off a litany of floods, diseases, deaths and disasters. He quickly turns back to being charming, explaining that He has a "wrath management" issue.
So, it's not all comedy. But most of it is. For 80 minutes, An Act of God is simply a very funny, sacrilegious, religious, insightful, charming, rambunctious play. And indeed, after railing at the Archangel Michael, God softens enough to explain that He has good news. A few years ago, He called Steve Jobs up ("He did a better job with his Apple, than I did with mine"), and got him to work on Universe 2.0. And goes into great detail about it. And later, in the end, He closes with a whimsical, very funny song.
Here's an extended clip from the Broadway production with Jim Parsons --
One last thing. In the play's program, there are of course capsule biographies for the actors, for playwright Javerbaum, for the director and production crew. And there is also a capsule biography for God. Rather than type the whole long thing out, I took a photo, so here it is --
Back in 1985, Universal Studios released the offbeat film Brazil which starred Jonathan Pryce (who six years later came to fame winning the Tony Award as Best Actor in a Musical for Miss Saigon) with Michael Palin and Robert DeNiro in supporting roles, along with Bob Hoskins and Ian Holm -- the latter to play Bilbo Baggins in the Lord of the Rings films. It was directed by Terry Gilliam, of Monty Python fame, who co-wrote the screenplay with the estimable Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown.
It was a somewhat controversial film for the studio, in part because of the length which they wanted trimmed, and in part because of the title, which they found inexplicable. I was working at the studio at the time, as an assistant production executive to the studio president Bob Rehme. During the controversy, I had a chance meeting with Terry Gilliam who, though I know he was a demanding fellow and could be very difficult (which doesn't inherently mean he was wrong) endeared himself to me with our exchange.
I had to go up to Bob Rehme's office on a business matter, and Terry Gilliam was there waiting for a meeting with the studio head, standing outside for Rehme's preceding meeting, which was running long, to end. Gilliam and I chatted a bit, but eventually it got around to the film's title, which I think was one of the points he was there to discuss. I commented that I knew the studio wasn't crazy about the title, and Gilliam defended it by noting, among other things, "That DeNiro likes it," which seemed to be the point that proved it all.
I knew that one should walk carefully on egg shells with any filmmaker, and with Terry Gilliam in particular, but the conversation was personable enough, so I took a gamble (and in retrospect a huge gamble) and quipped, referring to the just-named actor -- making sure to have a smile on my face -- "But then he's a guy who put on 40 pounds for a movie role and banged his head repeatedly into a brick wall."
Needless-to-say, I wasn't sure how Gilliam would react, and there was a few-seconds pause. And then a big smile broke out across his face, and he replied, "Well, yes, but I think that's the target audience for this movie."
I'm sure that if I ever got into an argument with Terry Gilliam, it would be rough. But how could I not have fond memories of the guy for that?!
The title issue got settled for absolute certain when the movie won the Los Angeles Film Critics Award for Best Picture. And Gilliam won for Best Director. When a movie wins prestigious awards like that, you don't throw away the PR and change the name. And so Brazil it stayed.
As it happens, a good friend of mine, Rob Hedden (who I've mentioned in this pages) had been hired to make a documentary about the making-of Brazil. Rob is a wonderful screenwriter and director (who co-wrote the film Clockstoppers, was on the writing staff of McGyver and many other series, and has directed several feature films and half a dozen TV movies -- including, Any Place But Home, written by my pal, the oft-mentioned here Bart Baker.) But this documentary came at the beginning of Rob's filmmaking career.
During the filming of Brazil, Rob and his wife Jan had flown over to England for several months -- a joy for me, because it gave me a place to stay when I went there for a brief vacation -- and were given extensive access to the movie production and actors. Though the resulting 30-minute documentary was done for the studio and to help promote the feature film, it was a wonderful little film in its own right, more off-beat than most such "behind-the-scene" documentaries. Not just showing How Wonderful it all is, but touching occasionally on problems and points of contention (though it was completed before the later studio battles). And loaded with clips from the finished-movie. It is terrifically crafted and with a quirky sense of humor -- starting with its own title and point of documentary: what in the world is the feature film about and what on earth does the title mean?? And it has fun with participants at a loss -- including the two screenwriters and Gilliam himself -- attempting to explain. Michael Palin makes a noble try, by calling it a "Viking musical."
(Palin is a special joy in the documentary, and according to Rob every bit as nice and supportive as his reputation. Getting actors to sit down and being interviewed for documentaries is always a challenge. Michael Palin however threw himself into it wholeheartedly and rather than do the traditional sit-down, actually played around with doing his interview as as a collection of skits and as characters, all the while making suggestions to help as much as he could. There is material of Michael Palin on the cutting room floor which could make a hilarious comedy all on his own, as he did these little sketches, but alas not everything ultimately just fit the final version. And as if that wasn't enough, during the break in filming at his home he made the documentary film crew lunch.)
And by the way, just to prove that this isn't a friend saying how terrific something is when it really isn't -- the documentary really is that fun. Indeed, the fact that it won both a CINE Award and a CINDY Award (Cinema in Industry, created 57 years ago), and was officially selected for exhibition at the Smithsonian is my evidence, your Honor. The defense rests.
So, here is that documentary. What is Brazil? it asks. And to its humorous credit -- it never quite answers.
It was a quiet week. The host flunks the Public Radio Relevancy Test, Clint and Clarence Bunsen find a buyer for Bunsen Motors, and Pastor Ingqvist and his ex-wife Judy return.
One of my long-favorite radio show's is the hugely entertaining current events quiz show, Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me! with host and the show's creator Peter Sagal, on NPR. It used to be broadcast out of Milwaukee, though a few years back moved down to Chicago. This isn't the whole program, but from their segment, "Not My Job." It's where they have some celebrity or public figure call in, interview them a bit, and then ask three questions about something that has nothing to do with their area of expertise. (If they get two right, a listener wins a prize.)
The call-in guests are pretty eclectic. A few years ago, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer played the game. Just last week, they had Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez. And other recent shows had Ice Cube, chef Jacques Pepin, Jeff Daniels, CNN's Jake Tapper, Cindy Crawford, and two-time Tony-winner Sutton Foster. Here from today's show is guest Richard Dreyfuss, phoning in.
Peter Sagal is off this week, and the fill-in host is Mike Petzka. And remember, if you answer two out of three questions correctly, you get a prize...
There is a reasonably long-running series out of Canada, The Artful Detective, which is broadcast on the Ovation channel. It's a turn-of-the-19th-century detective series set in Toronto. I find it ranges from charming, nicely-done to a bit bland.
(The show, now in its 9th season, is based on a series of novels, by Maureen Jennings and is known in Canada as Murdoch Mysteries, re-titled for Ovation.)
Anyway, today (Saturday) they have a new episode that deals with Mark Twain visiting the city. And the character of Mark Twain is played by...are you ready? -- good ol' Canadian boy, William Shatner!
I've seen the coming attractions, and they have made little attempt to make Mr. Shatner look at all like Mark Twain, other than slapping on a large mustache -- actually, he comes across more like William Howard Taft -- but it looks sort of fun.
And now you know. Crank up the DVR. The show will air this afternoon at 4 PM Los Angeles time (7 PM in the East).
I just tracked down a behind-the-scenes featurette on the episode. Here 'tis --
I tend to like The Rachel Maddow Show. I don't generally like that she often spends the first nine minutes on a history lesson, which often has little to do with the actual news story. And I don't like that she often repeats herself endlessly to make her point clear. So that her point is clear, she will repeat herself. Endlessly. Often, she will repeat herself -- repeat herself. Endlessly. So that her point is clear. Perfectly clear.
I understand why she does it. And I have no problem with offering history for perspective, nor a problem with clarity. But there are limits to how its done. Which is why I usually record it and start watching after about 20-30 minutes, so that I can fast-forward though these excursions. Still, I pretty much like her show, and find it bright, thoughtful, and opinionated but very fair.
But last night, I was gnashing my teeth and found it irresponsible. And grateful I could fast-forward.
She rightly spent much of the entire first segment dealing with Donald Trump dropping out of the Republican debate. And she did another full segment on Mr. Trump holding an alternate event at the same time as the time as the debate, detracting attention from the debate and under the pandering guise of a supposed fund-raiser for veterans -- putting into perspective the last time he did this, when the "veterans group" was really just a one-person organization that soon after got shut down. In fact, one of her guests was Paul Reichkoff, respected founder and CEO of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America organization, explaining eloquently why he had announced that his group wouldn't accept any funds, if offered, from Donald Trump's event making vets a political pawn So, the broadcast was very good for much of the first part.
So, when Donald Trump's fake-charity event started, what did Rachel Maddow do? It's not that her show referenced that it was starting -- which was unnecessary, since generally TV shows don't deal with speech schedules whenever a candidates decides to speak. Nor did the show cut to Trump's arrival and opening comments. No, what The Rachel Maddow Show did -- after they had spent two long segments bluntly slamming Donald Trump for avoiding having to debate his opponents and after they criticized the Trump event in detail for its shameless pandering to veterans -- was...it aired Donald Trump speaking alone for 13 minutes!
I was boggled. The news show gave Donald Trump everything he was hoping for, after criticizing him for almost 20 minutes those very things. They gave him the attention he wanted, they gave him the chance to speak by himself without debating, and they gave him the opportunity to appear faux-patriotic hiding behind a largely-fake veterans benefit. And they gave him a remarkable 13 minutes of this.
What were they thinking???
Not the show's most shining moment.
I didn't think it was possible, but I believe that we actually resolved all of my Quicken upgrade tech glitch issues. This might not sound like much of a reason for glorious celebration to you, but believe me, if you had seen all the numbing problems we had to deal with (and "we" included the great tech support guy, Kelvin), and the number of times Kelvin said, "Hmmph, I've never seen that before," you'd be overjoyed and stunned, well. Round Two started early this morning, when he called from South Carolina at 7:15 AM -- not to worry, it was pre-arranged, so I was expected it -- and it took another 2-1/2 hours until we fixed it.
That makes it eight hours of phone tech supports the last two days, and this doesn't count the two hours I took trying to track down the problem in the first place, before waving the white flag and calling tech support.
(You can read Part One of the story by clicking here. Or just scrolling down to the previous tale...)
This was really a total tsunami. And it wasn’t anything I did wrong when upgrading – at one point, for instance, Kelvin uninstalled all versions, did an additional clean-up of them, downloaded a new version directly from Quicken, and re-converted fresh, clean data files I had happily backed up on Saturday. [NOTE: Always back up!!] And yet with all that, it still was horribly screwed up. In fact, he couldn’t log in with his own name and password.
I won't even begin to describe the bizarre, horrific mess. Tons of huge problems I didn’t think would ever get resolved. The big one this morning we dealt with was that that my checkbook didn’t carry over the running balance for most items, so they were blank, and my ending checkbook balance was several trillion dollars. (I could only wish…) We finally tracked down several hundred anomalies, which we "zero’ed out," figuring I’d have to reconcile the account later. (Once again, as with yesterday, “Hmmph, I’ve never seen that before,” he said. And so I explained to him the Why Me, Lord Syndrome.) I had one hope – because these anomalies didn’t make the slightest sense, I had the feeling that they all get entered into my checking account by mistake and were, in fact, zero entries. After we deleted the very last one, I then checked the balance…and it was right to the penny! O freaking joy!!!
But here's one example of something which was a huge problem but could have been resolved easily with a better design – it picked up “Bill Reminders” from 2003, which sounds okay, except that (get this...) it actually carried them ALL over from the intervening 13 years! And there was no way to turn it off. You could turn ON Bill Reminders with one click, but you couldn’t turn them OFF. You had to delete each one manually. And there were 1,500 of them!! (There’d have been more, but that’s the limit Quicken will save.) Never mind that the dollar amounts it was reminding me of were bizarre, like in the tens of billions of dollars each! Really. And because there were 1,500 reminders, it used up SO much memory that it kept freezing up the program for 15-20 seconds after each deletion. We did it one…by…one. At the end, I offered a suggestion – “In the next version of Quicken, how about if they add an option to turn off Bill Reminders with one click…” He agreed that that would be a good one. After 20+ years of Quicken, I'm boggled that this was never something they did,
Believe me, this didn’t touch even touch the surface of the problems, which I really thought could be unfixable. And which was mind-numbingly disconcerting when I though all my finances were screwed up at best or lost at worst. But Kelvin really was wonderful, and after eight hours got it all resolved. By the end, we – honestly – had developed a great rapport, and he said he was sending me his email and work phone, if I had any problems in the future. (I think also he appreciated that I never screamed at him and told good stories. And that I'd actually worked on a movie in Columbia, where he lives. Staying Together with Sean Astin, Dermot Mulroney, Daphne Zuniga and others, directed by the actress Lee Grant. Plus, we had so much time that we got into discussion the upcoming South Carolina primary. They're already being bombarded by TV ads, he says.).
So, Kelvin was great. And the program now will hopefully run just fine. I've always good a fine experience with Quicken. But WHAT A DISASTER getting there. I'm absolutely certain that this isn't even close to typical, and that usually it goes smoothly. But a very-techie, knowledgeable about such things friend said to me that Intuit/Quicken has a reputation for sloppy software. As I said, my experiences before today have been good. And the company clearly has a huge user base, so people tend to like the products. But...this was just horrible.
But it got resolved. Thanks to Kelvin. I've written already to his supervisor. He was a gem.
The only thing I'm still really upset about is that that whole several "trillion dollars" in my checking account wasa glitch, too, and didn't pan out.
The glitch that's keeping me from logging into my website account is still ongoing, but from what I'm reading online and experiencing first-hand it appears to be limited to the Chrome browser and may Edge. But I i'm able to access things using Firefox, which I'm using now (as well as the aforementioned Android tablet version of Chrome.) So, hopefully at least this will work when I next check in, and I'll be back up and semi-running.
[Update: I am writing this sentence in my Chrome browser, so hopefully it appears that the issue has actually been fixed. My fingers are crossed -- which makes for more difficult typing.]
But this was easily the far-least of my tech issues on Thursday..
There is a condition that I have named, The "Why Me, Lord?" Syndrome -- or WML, as several of my friends have given it a shorthand name, since I seem to come up with it so often.
(One example. I was flying back from Europe, a 12-hour trip, and the entertainment console in front of me had a glitch where by it was being controlled by the remote for the person in the seat next to me. And hers by mine. But because of the logistics, I was able to lend her mine, so she was covered for the journey, but I...was not. The flight attendant said that he had been flying for 12 years, and this was the first time he'd ever seen this problem. I introduced him to the concept of the "Why Me, Lord?" Syndrome. He loved the name, and for the rest of the flight kept referencing it.
My other problem today was less adorable. In fact, it's infuriating. I don't have it in me to give all the details -- and even if I did, it would take too long. But this is the simple version --
I upgraded my Quicken 2003 today to Quicken 2016. The old version did everything very basic I needed, which is why I never upgraded it. But in the morning I wasn’t able to print out reports, which I was trying to do for year-end taxes. After a couple hours of trying to fix it, the common resolution I read online was, alas, time to upgrade. And so I did. The instructions required a few steps to convert the file format, but they were were easy and straightforward.
And then everyone went haywire. And after 5-1/2 hours on the phone with tech support (seriously) – peppered continuously with his, “Hmmph, I’ve never seen that before…” – the fellow finally had to hang up because (being three hours later on the East Coast) his day was over and he’d have to call me back tomorrow! So, the problem is still unresolved.
Though there still were problematic issues, the program was at least installed. So, left to my own devices, I tried to play around with Quicken a bit on my own to see what I could get done, and -- well, let's just say it's even more screwed up than I thought. Some recent data is missing (though happily most is there), but it runs horribly and tends to freeze up at most anything, continually getting “Not responding” error messages. (As I said, I’m leaving out all the specifics. Just know that it’s deeply mucked up, and the tech guy eventually had to bring someone else in to assist, and together they boy kept saying, “Hmmph, we haven’t seen that before.”)
One example they haven't seen. Quicken sets "Reminders" of when payments are due. For whatever reason, it is showing "Reminders" ongoing since 2003. Over a thousand of them. And it slows the program to near-uselessness. Which has brought about one of the, "Hmmph, we haven't see that before."
Most "Why me, Lord?" Syndrome occurrences are annoying. Risking all one’s financial data transcends that and has no whimsy to it.
Sorry, but we're having a big tech problem with the service provider of this website. I can't get access to the blog editor and only got in through my tablet. I'll keep trying. Updates as they occur...
The other day, I wrote about the wonderful current issue of Written By, the magazine publication of the Writers Guild of America. They have a special issue centered around the "101 Funniest Screenplays" list that the Guild put together. I linked here to a terrific interview with Woody Allen, and this another very enjoyable piece on Mel Brooks, called "Where Did He Go Right?" (which is an anguished lament from the film, The Producers, when Max Bialystock tries to produce a disastrous flop and intentionally does everything wrong, but the musical turns out to be a smash hit.) The article, written by Lisa Rosen, began as a look about at all of Brooks's career, but though he does talk about a lot, it focuses far more on the history of The Producers.
What I particularly liked about the interview, and found most fascinating for two reasons, is that Brooks talks about the involvement of Alfa-Betty Olsen. That's the first fascinating thing, since it's something he rarely does (though has on occasion). It's always been "Mel Brooks's The Producers", indeed something he won the Oscar for, as Best Original Screenplay. So, it's intriguing to hear him address her participation, especially in the official publication of the Writers Guild.
The other reason is the "mystery" of what her actual participation was. There has been a certain group of thought that her work was significant, even to the point of coming up with the idea or writing much of the script. It's certainly possible, though I've always suspect it hasn't been significant to that level, since for a work this tremendous, her resume is deeply limited and seriously uninspiring. That alone isn't even close to "proof," since a lot of very talented writers have scant produced credits and just weren't able to get other projects off the ground for any number of reasons. But completely unrelated to his reference to Alfa-Betty Olsen is an earlier part of the interview where he talks about the history of The Producers. And that's something I've never heard him talk about, and it added other very important pieces of the puzzle.
For starters, Mel Brooks gives the name of the producer he worked for earlier in his career, which gave him the idea for the story. I've heard him talk about the man numerous times,but I've never once heard him give the name. Here he does -- Benjamin Kutcher.
From there, Brooks talks about writing it first as a novel, but the people he gave it to found it mostly dialogue, and suggest he turn it into a play. Which he does -- but the producer Kermit Bloomgarden (who did The Music Man) was concerned that it required far too many cast members and sets. And he suggested it be turned into a movie. And so Brooks wrote another version, this time as a film. And after that, that's when he brought in Alfa-Betty Olsen, largely (so he says) for her opinion on what worked and what didn't.
I have no idea if that's what her participation was, or if it was more. But given that Mel Brooks on his own wrote The Producers as a novel, a stage play and then a film script, it seems pretty clear to me that the story was absolutely his, as was the foundation and structure. This is not remotely meant to diminish Alfa-Betty Olsen's participation, but to put it in a more rounded perspective than I've ever seen it before, along with her own credits. She likely had a valuable part to play, given that Mel Brooks does bring her up. But it seems likely to me that Mel Brooks deserves his sole credit.
As I said, the article deals with more than just The Producers, and a wider spectrum of his career, and you can read here.
And here he is receiving his Oscar for Best Screenplay. It's presented by Frank Sinatra and Don Rickles -- the latter of whom decides to horn in on Mel Brooks's moment and almost mucks it up, but Brooks is able to politely not let him.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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