On this weeks episode of 3rd & Fairfax, the official podcast of the Writers Guild of America, the guests are long-time writing partners Michael Colton & John Aboud who wrote the recent Netflix movie, A Futile and Stupid Gesture, about the early days of National Lampoon. Their credits also include the film, Penguins of Madagascar, and the series Leverage and Children's Hospital.
As I've noted, one of the fun things about the Mystery Guest segment of the old TV series What's My Line? is that you often get, not just major public figures, but often people you'd never expect to see on a game show. And this is one of those -- made all the more fun (at least for me) because while I don't have many "heroes" in the world of popular culture, this fellow is one of the few. Edward R. Murrow.
Adding to the fun of this is that Murrow may-well be the most famous voice in U.S. radio history because of his renowned "This is London" broadcasts during World War II. And so clearly the challenge in the game here was to disguise that voice. And Murrow seems to be actually having great fun doing voices. (Fortunately, there's a lot of talk after the game end, so we get to hear a lot of Murrow as Murrow.) Further, he was known as someone who was VERY serious -- famously getting into arguments with management to protect his news broadcasts and commentary which were often controversial -- and he clearly has a good sense of humor on the show here.
(As it happens, for a personal reason I know that those arguments with management were a real thing and not just rumored. When I was at Northwestern, I did an independent research study with a new professor who had just joined the Medill School of Journalism there, a fellow named Sig Mickelson. As it happens -- though my crossing paths with him wasn't coincidental, indeed it was probably the main reason I wanted to do the independent research study -- Mickelson had been the president of CBS News when Murrow was there, probably in the late-50s / early 60s. I had a chance to talk with him about Murrow a bit, which was a joy, and while Mr. Mickelson admired Murrow's work a great deal, he noted that he and Murrow often butted heads, and it was a difficult relationship.
(If you saw the movie, Good Night, and Good Luck, about the See It Now broadcast on Joseph McCarthy, Jeff Daniels plays Sig Mickelson in the film. The two look nothing alike. Mr. Mickelson looked more like the character actor John Randolph, who played Tom Hanks' grandfather in You've Got Mail.)
This is from very early in the TV show's run, airing on December 7 (a notable day in history), 1952, If you want to jump right to the segment, it starts at 16:38. And even though his appearance is just 7-1/2 long, you'll notice that he still can't go that long without his trademark cigarette.
On Wednesday, retiring Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) was the keynote speaker at Harvard Law School for their Class Day ceremony. It was a blistering speech, particularly addressed at Trump, but with criticism directed at his body, as well. How blistering? Here's how he gets into it --
"I'm here today as a representative of a co-equal branch of government, a branch which has been failing its Constitutional obligations to counteract the power of the president. And in so doing is dishonoring itself at a critical moment in the life of our nation."
Three thoughts immediately come to mind. The first is, great, it's about time hearing a Republican be so outspoken on what seems a pretty obvious reality. Sen. Flake has been critical of Trump in the past, but he takes this to new heights -- in large part because of new lows. Second, as has been said elsewhere, it's a horrible shame that the only Republican politicians we hear say such things are those who will be retiring or already have, so they have nothing to lose. The others in office are a profile in cowardice and complicit in enabling this fascist administration. And third, as much as I admire Jeff Flake's previous criticism of Trump and his withering word here -- and I admire them greatly -- one can't ignore that, even though he feels so strongly about the dangers of Trump, he pretty much has voted with Trump almost 100% of the time. I understand that he's a conservative Republican, representing his state, and vote for issues he believe in. But I also know that he's well-aware that by voting with Trump he is adding to Trump's sense of legitimacy, power, and normalization. If you feel someone is as much a danger as Flake clearly does and says bluntly that he does, I think it's in your state's and the country's best interest to not support that person -- far more than in their interest to get a bill passed.
Anyway, here's the speech. If you want to jump past his opening comments, you can get to the meat of the matter about 2-1/2 minutes in.
I've mentioned that I went to see Audra McDonald in the afternoon on Sunday, and that it was a long day. That's because in the morning I drove out to Agoura Hills (which is about 40 minutes west of me) for the 49th annual Topanga Banjo and Fiddle Contest. I know this isn't for everyone, but it's so different from expectations that I suspect a lot more people would enjoy the day than think so.
I don't go every year, in large part because it's a drive to get there. Also, it's a fun thing to do with others and I just haven't usually been able to get others to join me. (Go figure.) Though sometimes. So, usually I head out on my own. But this is something I love. Hey, I even took banjo lessons! I think I've probably forgotten it all, but the trusty fellow is sitting there in the corner, and every once in a long while I take it out an strum away and annoy the neighbors. (I have a wooden device that mutes the sound, and it does that well. The problem is that it makes the banjo sound like a guitar. And if you're going to play the banjo, the Whole Point is that it sounds like a banjo...)
Once upon a time getting to the Topanga Banjo and Fiddle Contest was much more convenient. The early years were held on the athletic field at UCLA, not far from me. The first time I went was probably around its 10th year. A lot of fun, though it was mainly just the main stage music, along with a few booths, and it has expanded greatly since then. Initially, they moved to another college athletic field, which wasn't that great, but eventually wound up in Agoura Hills at the Paramount Ranch, fairly near Topanga, so it's not only a terrific venue for the event, but now an appropriate one, at last. They've probably been there for about 30 years, give or take.
What's best about the current location is that you're in the middle of Malibu Creek State Park, so you're surrounded by trees, which not only adds a wonderfully more-rich atmosphere than dormitories, college buildings and an athletic track, but there's also now shade around the outskirts of the main field, (if you choose to wander in them or take a hike), which believe me helps A LOT some years, when the sun pounding down can be brutal, especially if you stay there all day, which can about nine hours.
But also what's nice is that the Paramount Ranch has been a location for a lot of movie and television filming, most notably as the town for TV series, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. And that too is part of what makes the area so good for the festival -- what with the Western town structure, it has an old-timey feel.
The thing about the TB&FC is that while once upon a time it was mostly just that main stage for the contest, it's now really turned into a festival.
The contest itself is made up of a massive range of categories -- divided into instruments, solo or group, singing, backup and more. And they further divide things according to level of performance: beginner, intermediate and advance. In the past, all those were mashed together, which was fairly fun to see, though the quality got a bit ragged. Now, though, they've gotten more clever -- they realized that they have all these structures, so the lower levels of beginning and intermediate have their own areas. That breaks things up wonderfully and lets you wander around more for variety. The main stage is for advanced.
(I'm going to post a bunch of videos I took, but not to worry, none last more than 30 seconds. So, if you're not big into this kind of music, it's just for flavor.)
Much of the fun of the festival transcends just what's on the stage. There are so many areas to explore. Lots of booths for arts & crafts. An area of food trucks, including some good aromas for barbecue. (I brought my own food, but maybe next year...) And one of my favorite things -- the jamming areas, where musicians gather together and start playing with one another.
Much of the fun of the festival is that they also have performance areas that have nothing to do with banjo and fiddle. Rather there are structures for things like the Cowboy Storytelling competition, or Western dancing competition or Cowboy singing, or things like that. This was the latter --
When I wandered into the barn to take a look at the dancing competition, they were on a break, however another feature of the festivities is that there are professional groups performing throughout. And the group on stage were extremely good --
Good as these small, professional groups are, one of the highlights of the day is that – to break up the contest on the main stage (where the advanced musicians perform), they have serious professionals, some with national reputations, performing every few hours, maybe four times or so during the day, doing half-hour sets. I think the reason for this isn’t just to add variety, but it gives the judges some much-needed time off.
When I was there, they had Jenna Moynihan and Mãiri Chaimbeul from Boston, who played celtic fiddle and harp. They were absolutely terrific, and charming with their banter. (At one point, Ms. Moynihan said they'd be singing a song by a wonderful singer-songwriter and asked the crowd if they knew of him. There was total silence. And after a proper beat, she added, "So, I'll take that as a Big No.") Here's only a very short 30-seconds of their playing, but if you want to hear more, you can find their new CD, One Two, which they were selling at the event, here.
The day was great – and the weather (which is often blistering) cooperated lovingly and was in the upper-60s. I was sorry not being able to take full advantage of that, but as I said I had an hour drive back into the city to meet up with Mark Evanier so that we could go to the Audra McDonald contest. Er, I mean, concert.
It's a joyful festival, beautifully organized, and they've been doing this long enough that they've got the thing down to a T, running impeccably, a fine bit of cooperation between festival folk and the park rangers. If there's a part of it you're not enjoying, or have heard enough of one kind of music for the time being, you just walk around the spacious grounds to find something else.
For those interesting in knowing more about the Topanga Banjo & Fiddle Contest, and live in the Los Angeles area (or plan to be there next year in late May…), and you might want to see it live, it’s a joy and you can find the link to it here.
Plink, plank, plunk...
The moment I saw the news that Trump canceled talks with North Korea, my second thought was "Will 'Fox News' report it? And will they cover the story as if the talks were still happening?" Third thought was "Does Tucker Carlson have his sex-panda videos ready to show tonight"? (My first thought was "There goes the Nobel Peace Prize.
I think this may be a good time to once again promote my multiple Emmy-winning pal Rob Kutner's guide to surviving the Apocalpypse. Apocalypse How: Turn the End-Times into the Best of Times. Available here on Amazon while supplies last. Or the world does.
If you wander around social media at all, you may recall this great video announcing the candidacy of Amy McGrath for Congress in the Kentucky 6th district. On Tuesday, she won the primary against the DCCC's official choice, a perfectly good nominee, Jim Gray, the mayor of Lexington's. She just turned out to be better.
A lot of the reason she won is because of her introduction video which, as the saying goes, went viral. She raised $2 million off of it. It's absolutely great -- one of the best political campaign videos I've seen. I retweeted it around, though I was in good company.
I'm biased in part because she refers to her mother being a polio survivor. My mother was too, and lived to the age of 87. But I was taken by Ms. McGrath's video long before she even got to that point. It was just icing on the cake. But in recent perspective it's all the better -- remember how on just this past Monday I hoped that Democrats would remind voters about the importance of the Affordable Care Act and how Republicans voted to gut it? Well, that's precisely what Amy McGrath did in the ad (and I'm sure in her campaign), which is why she brings up her mother.
But watching only the video, I suspect that even from seeing that little, it's likely she won the Democratic primary for a lot of reasons, not just that one thing.
The seat is currently held by a Republican, Andy Barr. But it's considered winnable by Democrats. Barr won his most recent election by 22 points. However, it's not a Deep Red district. I believe that Trump won it by only five points. Four years earlier, Mitt Romney only won the district by eight points. (Which also means it got closer...) And more to the point, in 2010 the district elected a Democratic congressman. One other issue, something I talk about regularly which I think will be a major factor in the mid-terms: the Enthusiasm Gap. In fairness, the Republican candidate was an incumbent, but he did have a challenger. 48,372 votes were cast in the Republican primary. The Democratic primary had 100,418 votes cast.
And as for seeing -- here's that video.
Speaking of Audra McDonald -- as we were yesterday -- it turns out that the six-time Tony-winner stopped in to visit The Late, Late Show with James Corden while in Los Angeles on her concert tour to participate in an amusing sketch, "Inappropriate Musicals. Along with Corden and Dan Stevens (from the live-action Beauty and the Beast and Downton Abbey), the trio performed scenes from three fictitious musicals which never should have been musicals.
I have a feeling that this was recorded separately from the show. It appeared Monday night after her Sunday concert, but during her concert she explained (during shouts for more encores) that they were leaving after the show to fly up to San Francisco. Also, there are several costume changes in the sketch that would seem to take longer than the time allotted if done live, which makes me suspect all the more that this was taped in advance.
On Monday, Trump sent out a couple of tweets praising himself for the great deal he got in his trade talks with China. In case you missed them amid the morass of tweets, they were --
And then another, four minutes later --
Never mind that after the Trump tariffs China actually signed a deal with Russia for soybeans rather than the U.S. And never mind, too, that what he says about China buying products has zero to do with lowering trade deficit. (As an economist explained, the way this works is that the added income into the U.S. would only be used to buy Chinese-made products, which keeps the deficit the same.) But never mind all that. Because the bigger problem is that yesterday -- the very next day (you can see the timestamp on his two tweets above -- Trump had a brief Q&A with the president of South Korea. And in one of his comments, Trump said -- "I'm not pleased how the China trade talks went."
No, really. Barely 24 hours later.
Today's question, class: How on earth does he expect ANYONE to believe anything he says?? If he doesn't think North Korea follows his tweets & words, he's wrong.
Just because National Security Director (sic) John Bolton (sick) can go on the TV over the weekend and with as straight a face say that it's a good thing the planned-meeting with North Korea is so soon because that means Trump doesn't have time prepare for it and can instead just get a real, human assessment of Kim Jong-Un doesn't mean the rest of us have to buy that -- because it's not how world diplomacy and de-nuclearization talks works. This is like the guy in my college dorm sophomore year who would stand in the hallway goofing off with everyone on the last night before his term papers would be due, having waited until then to write them because, as he insisted, "I think better under pressure." And get an F.
(And yes, that's true, though I can't swear he would get F's. However, what's also true is that the next year he was elected president of the Inter-Fraternity Council on campus. Just the kind of guy you'd expect to be president of the frats! My only concern is that today he's working in the Trump administration...)
"He actually put us all at risk" takes on a new and substantive resonance when it's backed by reality.
On Sunday, after attending a music event out in the Agoura Hills at the Paramount Ranch, I drove back an hour to go with my pal Mark Evanier to a concert by Audra McDonald at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. So, though this was the second part of the long day, I'll deal with it here first. I'll get to the earlier part of the day soon.
Mark had called me the evening before, and even though I knew it would involve a lot of driving and re-scheduling, I figured I should give it a go. I like Audra McDonald's work very much (it's hard not to), though I'm not at all a die-hard acolyte. I'd seen her with Mark last year in a much smaller venue that was more of a conversation with song, where she chatted with Seth Rudetsky who accompanied her on the piano for the few numbers she sang. (I wrote about it here.) Sunday was worlds different. And that was the point in going, to compare the differences.
Mainly, rather than being interviewed and a piano, she sang for two hours with the L.A. Opera orchestra behind her. We're so used to not hearing full orchestras these days -- including at musicals with pared down bands -- that the music alone was glorious. Soaring and rich.
Wonderful too was her chatting between numbers with the audience, something I find too often missing in concerts. The performer just stands there and sings most of the time, and you could just as well bought the CD and had close to the same experience. Her chatting was warm and personal, often very funny, and occasionally touching. Much of it is scripted, I'm sure -- that's hardly a complaint. A well-planned show should have prepared material -- but it was clear that a good amount was off-the cuff. For instance, responding to the audience when she'd ask them questions. Or at one point, after screwing up the lyrics of a song. she quipped, "Maybe I should have told you it was okay to sing along." (Or something like that.)
And as for her singing -- well, yeah. She does have a set of pipes. And it's not just that her voice is so strong to the point where you wondered why she even bothered with a microphone, but it's her interpretation of numbers that sets her standard, whether funny or emotional. Most of the selections were from musical theater -- most classic numbers, with some that were lesser-known to most of the audience, but also several fairly new works since she's a big champion of developing new songwriters.
All in all, it was a very enjoyable afternoon.
There was one particular song that stood out from the others as different. It was one of those new ones written by an Australian singer, Kate Miller Heidke, who she talks about meeting, and being SO taken by the song because it spoke so incredibly personally to her down to the details of a very emotional period of her life. As such, she apologized in advance for the language being very different from the rest of her concert and work, but it was too spot-on to what her own thoughts were, that they had to be sung as is.
I couldn't find a video of Audra McDonald performing song, but did find her recording of it on one of her albums. And since it was done in concert, it fit well enough. So, here it is, "The Facebook Song" --
As a bonus, here is a video of the song performed by its writer, Kate Miller Heidke. As you'll note, it turns out that Audra McDonald did change one lyric -- the very last line which she softened. Ms. Miller Heidke sings it as intended.
Robert J. Elisberg is a two-time recipient of the Lucille Ball Award for comedy screenwriting. He's written for film, TV, the stage, and two best-selling novels, and is a regular columnist for the Huffington Post and the Writers Guild of America. Among his other writing, he has a long-time column on technology (which he sometimes understands), and co-wrote a book on world travel. As a lyricist, he is a member of ASCAP, and has contributed to numerous publications.
Feedspot Badge of Honor