Happy Thanksgiving from Joe Bethersenton to you and yours...
We'll start off the holiday with something from The West Wing. The series would periodically do a a Thanksgiving-themed episode, and this is one of the memorable sequences from one of those, an episode entitled "Indian in the Lobby." (If it seems to jump in time a bit, that's because it's not a single scene per se, since this is a collection of snippets that the YouTube poster edited together.)
Happy Thanksgiving from Joe Bethersenton to you and yours...
I like The Rachel Maddow Show a lot. I watch it most days. I think she not only does very good work, but but often great, important work. I do tend to record it so that I can fast-forward through the parts she's reported before, or through the long history lessons she's given that I know, or the repeating of a point four times to make sure you get it. I understand her doing that, and I'm okay with it -- but that doesn't mean I have to listen to it regularly, which is why God invented the fast-forward button.
But every once she goes off the rails. And last night was one of those.
With ALL the news stories to cover today -- the 11 murders at the Pittsburgh synagogue, the 14 pipe bombs that got mailed, the two murders at a grocery store when the killer couldn't get in a black church, Trump trying to claim he could sign a racist executive order to rewrite the Constitution, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi which Turkish authorities expanded that day, the 400 immigrant children still separated from their parents, and much, much, much more -- and it being only week before the mid-term elections, I thought it was irresponsible of the show last night to spend 23 MINUTES on their LEAD STORY being about Dodge City, Kansas voter suppression, which largely repeated an story she's been covering repeatedly for the past week.
Some added perspective. A one-hour primetime TV show has about 44 minutes of content. For a news show on MSNBC, it might be different. But that's the ballpark. So, that means that when you open with a 23-minute segment, that's not a-third of your hour show...it's HALF. Half of The Rachel Maddow Show was devoted to a lead story they've covered repeatedly for the past week and even longer.
It's not that it wasn't a good story or an important one. It's significant But this wasn't a breaking story, which is what you generally have as the lead -- they'd covered the story regularly all week. It wasn't even particularly an extension of the story with significant new details, which also generally justifies sometime being a lead story. In fact, If they wanted to give the story another 23 minutes and put it on later in the broadcast -- that would have been too much, but really okay. Indeed, if they wanted it to be the lead story -- that would be fine, too, but for 10 minutes for anything that was new to report. But...not 23 MINUTES as the lead story they've covered repeatedly -- and with SO MUCH else going on, especially as the election date nears...including other major stories of voter suppression, not just in a town with 27,000 people but like in the entire state of Georgia, North Dakota and Indiana, for starters.
And I suspect because they devoted SO much landscape as their lead story last night, they'll feel compelled to give it even more precious air time tonight, with a long follow-up. And beyond.
It's a good story. It's an important story. But this was out of perspective.
I first wrote here about the little-known show Snoopy!!! The Musical back in 2013. The stage show was a sort of sequel to the big off-Broadway hit, You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, though with a different team of writers, having a wonderful score by Hal Hackady and Larry Grossman, which is near the equal of the gem that was the original -- and includes the now-classic "Just One Person," which has become seen as a "Muppet song." I wrote about the show's background here, and last month posted a few more songs from it, among them some videos of an animated Peanuts TV special they did of a cut-down version of the musical.
I tracked down the full special, and figured why just post a random song or two. Here's the whole, joyful thing.
Almost two years ago, back on October 30, 2016, I wrote about an absolutely tremendous mini-series from the BBC called Dickensian. I discovered it from an unexpected direction. Through I my tech columns, I dealt with a number of British PR firms who I'd get a chance to visit with at trade shows. We became friendly, and one of the women from our conversation became aware I'd written a spoof, called A Christmas Carol 2: The Return of Scrooge, which carried the story forward and did so with about two dozen characters from other Dickens novels who crossed paths in the tale. At CES this one year, she told me about a recent series she had loved on the BBC called Dickensian, which she thought I'd enjoy because it used a similar technique. The story took place in one particular London neighborhood around 1850 around Christmastime (being Dickens, of course!) and wove together dozens of characters from Dickens novels interacting with one another. In part it's a murder mystery, lead by Inspector Bucket, from Bleak House, played by Stephen Rea (from The Crying Game). But it has a half-dozen other storylines that intersect and include such characters as Fagin, Bob Cratchit, Lady Dedlock, Ebenezer Scrooge, Miss Havisham, Jack Dawkins (the real name of the Artful Dodger), Little Nell, Mr. Bumble and many, many more.
With efforts much too convoluted to explain, I was able to get a copy of the 10-part series, though it wasn't shown in the United States. The program was gloriously wonderful, and you can read my original, detailed piece about it here.
I bring this up again for a particular reason.
At the time, I wrote that I hoped the series would become available on Netflix or perhaps shown on BBC America. Why this magnificent series hasn't made it to BBC America is beyond me. But good news! You can stream the series now if you have an Amazon Prime account.
The direct link to the series on Amazon Prime is here.
Know that you do not have to know Dickens at all to enjoy the series, even any of those iconic characters. It's written so the murder mystery, gothic romances, business intrigues, family conflicts and comic interludes stand on their own. If you do know Dickens, it just adds more fun to the goings-on. (I found that what helped, too, is that after an episode, if I didn't know who a character was, I'd just jot down the name and look it up online, and then would know the connection for the rest of the series. Or even easier, you can check out the show's page on Wikipedia which has a convenient sort of "Who's who" chart here.)
Here's the trailer, followed by an extended scene. Neither does the series justice, the trailer focusing mostly on the murder mystery and Big Dark Drama, and the whole show itself is far more graceful and vibrant, even at times funny. But this trailer is attention-getting. It also gives away the murder victim (as does the following scene), so if you don't want to know, then skip them. But really, there's no reason not to know, especially since you learn who is killed within about 15 minutes of the start. (Side note: I actually was able to guess who the victim would be, and was giddy with joy that I not only was right, but the cleverness of who it was.)
And here is a longer scene. It largely involves the Bumbles, who are relatively minor characters in the series, but the clip gives you a better sense of the quality of the writing and acting. So, for those reasons I think it's worthwhile to include.
It will not come as a shock to anyone who knows me that I was busy last night with the Chicago Bears and Chicago Cubs both on television. So, it completely slipped through the cracks that the Emmys were on, and I missed them. In fairness, I probably wouldn't have watched, since I tend not to. I may have recorded them, had I remembered, and the fast-forwarded through to specific moments, like I do with most awards shows, but who knows?
The larger point here is I only recently found out the winners. And readers of these pages will recall me raving here about the Amazon Prime series, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and singling out the show's star Rachel Brosnahan and supporting actress Alex Boorstein. So, I’ll note that it had seven wins, including Best Comedy Series – as well as wins for Ms. Brosnahan and Ms. Boorstein, as well as writing. And three others.
I tries nots to steers ya wrong.
I was also told by a friend who watched the show about the broadcast's high with the award for Best Director of Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Special, won by Glenn Weiss -- who proceeded to propose on stage to his girlfriend. Actually, for all the attention that got, my favorite moment was when he looks up to the control booth and (being a director of live events, who understands such things like the tight schedule they're under) apologizes to "Hamish" -- the Emmy broadcast's director, and clearly a friend -- for taking more time that he's allotted.
(After the show, I saw an interview with Glen Weiss where he was asked about what if he hadn't won, was there a Plan B. He answered that, no, that there was no Plan B. It was all Plan A, everything with his now-fiance was always Plan A.)
Here's that segment.
This is a terrific interview with Jason Alexander talking about Estelle Harris and Jerry Stiller who played his parents on Seinfeld. The great affection he has for them pours through -- and he even tosses in a very funny (and good) impersonation of them both.
During the "hand-off" after Katy Tur's show on MSNBC ended, as Ali Velshi's show is about to start, the two engaged in a bit of brief banter.
Velshi: Here, I have this note for you.
Tur: I saw you writing something. I didn't know what it was. (Unfolds it.) Should I read this out loud?
Velshi: You judge.
Tur (reads): "Damn, Katy, I would like..."
Velshi: "DEAR Katy, DEAR Katy, DEAR Katy." (Crew cracks up. An awestruck Velshi fights to keep from bursting out in laughter.) I'm not that good with the handwriting. It's "DEAR Katy," not "Damn Katy." "DEAR Katy."
(Crew still laughing. Tur turns back and looks into the camera behind her, with a sheepish, deer-in-the-headlights "Oh, God, did I just really do that??" expression.)
[UPDATE: And here it is! Scroll down to the bottom. Actual proof that I wasn't a-lying... ]
Okay, like so many others with a keyboard at their disposal, I feel it's required that I chime in and comment on the new changes to the Academy Awards.
The most notable by far is the addition of what they're calling Best Popular Film. And like pretty much everyone else I read, I agree that it's mind-numbingly idiotic. Not because it's a change and How Dare You Change the Oscars (it's the Oscars, for goodness sake, it's open for change), but because they're panderingly foolish and diminish the whole point of the show. To be clear, I've written lengthy articles about how the Tony Awards should change their broadcast and why. (The short, core answer to the latter is that these are TV shows, so they should make them good TV shows.) So, I'm absolutely fine with changing awards shows.
My friend Ken Levine, a multiple-Emmy-winner who's also written several features, has a a spot-on rant about what's wrong about this Best Popular Film category, which you can read here.
Part of the challenge with everyone's complaint about this rule (including my own) is that the Motion Picture Academy hasn't actually announced yet how it will work. But then, that should give you a hint about the problem with it. I suspect that the Academy hasn't announced how it will work because it doesn't have a clue how it will work. Most probably because it won't work. Can a film be eligible for Best Popular Film and Best Picture? Will this undercut the value of Best Picture by suggesting that if it's not popular, it's just a froo-froo artsy-fartsy film no one should care about except the effete snobs? Does it demean the Best Popular Film nominees by saying they're perhaps a bit dumb and not good enough to be a Best Picture? And what qualifies for a "Popular Film"? And will you now get people whining (by the way, the answer to this is "Yes," regardless how the sentence finishes...) that some movie won Best Popular Film when another movie was clearly more popular? And why only Best "Popular" Film ? Why not an award for Best Comedy Film? And Best Action Film? And, hey, why not Best Un-Popular Film? (since after all, most movies that don't do well at the box office, no matter how brilliantly made rarely get Oscar nominations -- because people didn't see them, not just the public but Oscar voters,!) And for that matter, why not Best Popular Actor in a Popular Film? Because they generally get overlooked, too. Most especially Best Comic Actor in a Comedy Film? And...and...and...well, fill in the blank with your own "ands", including at the top, and why have the category at all???!
The whole point of the Oscars is excellence. After all, it's given by the Industry itself, by the people who actually make the movies. There are plenty other awards shows that honor popularity. And there's the box-office, too. We can see pretty easily which movies made the most money and therefore was the most popular. (That doesn't inherently mean such films will be The Best, but it certainly focuses the list.) The Oscars are about craft. That might bother some people -- or perhaps many people -- who think the concept of quality is too high-brow and elitist. But it's not, of course, the concept of quality is based on doing your best. We don't demean an Olympic Gold Medal-winner because he or she was a better runner than all others. No, the two concepts are not the same, but the foundation is. You don't get a bonus Gold Medal for finishing seventh but you have the most TV commercial endorsements. There are no participation trophies when you get past the third grade. If the U.S. Movie Award-a-ganza show wants to honor The Most Popular, swell. But these are the Oscars. Yes, it's just about honoring movies, not medical breakthroughs, but it's what separates them from the other shows, there's a point to them, some heft,)
And to be clear, this change has nothing to do with excellence or craft. It's to draw a larger TV audience and perhaps even assuage egos. And it's idiotic.
Which leads us to the other changes, designed to streamline the TV broadcast. (Here, I only partly agree with what Ken Levine wrote in his aforementioned article. He makes some good points, though overall I don't have an issue with trying to make a TV show a better TV show.) I'm actually okay with the Oscars -- or any awards show) -- doing little sketches and montages. It's a TV show, after all. The problem is when you do silly, pointless, interminable "bits" that might at best be after-thoughts on a late-night TV talk show ("Hey, let's get volunteers and go down the block to surprise tourists with candy!!") and not something organic to the broadcast. When you do the former, they're a waste of space. When you do the latter, they enhance the show.
The streamlining changes are being made to keep the show at three hours and not spill over interminably. In doing so, they will now present some of the awards during commercial breaks, and then edit them to show the winner's speech later in the broadcast. (Which awards that will be should be a fun debate in the Academy.)
I understand why some are bothered by this. Hey, if I was nominated, and my category was one of those, I'd be bothered. But this isn't about five people being bothered. It's about hundreds of millions of people watching on TV being bored. They're no eliminating the award, after all. If you get an Oscar nomination -- let alone win -- you have the nomination, and have it for all time. It forever will be the first line in your biography whenever anyone writes about you, whether it was on TV or not. When you're up for your next job, the people hiring will know you were nominated for an Oscar -- and maybe even won. Moreover, they already give a lot of Oscars that aren't shown on TV -- in fact, they're given on a complete separate night, the Technical Achievement Awards, which get very short shrift on the Oscar broadcast. But they still count as Oscars. And Oscar nominations. So, there's LONG precedence with this, and even more drastically, it's not a Huge Deal. Though it is a deal. The thing is, it all depends on how it's handled. (In the new, edited version, for instance, they could show and identify all the nominees on-screen in boxes while the winner is being announced, and then quick-cut to the winner on stage, and give 30 seconds of the person's speech.) It certainly can absolutely be handled poorly...but it doesn't have to be.
The Tony Awards, after all, do something sort of like this already for several awards (though given at an earlier ceremony), and sometimes some of the awards are significant ones. They've worked on getting it right over the past few years. The first year they didn't do a great job with it, but with some trial-and-error, it worked fairly nicely this past season. It still has a ways to go, but it can be done well. And the Oscars can do it well, too. If they don't -- that's the problem. Not that they're trimming the full live-presentation of a few awards that the viewing audience doesn't care about.
And in the end, again, it's a TV show. The point of the Oscar telecast is to make a good TV show. If you want to present all the awards and in full -- great! Just don't accept the millions of dollars for rights fee and put a TV camera in the room.
By the way, that said, I also don't have any qualms with an Oscar broadcast going long. Such length can be boring -- or add heft and substance. Gandhi was long -- it also won Best Picture. (And was pretty popular, too!) One From the Heart wasn't all very long at all -- and it was mind-numbing. In the end, everything should be done to make the Oscars a sharp, fluid, thoughtful, entertaining TV broadcast...that honors excellence and craft.
That's a tall order and a tough challenge. But you only have to do it once a year. And, c'mon, you're starting from a foundation of honoring movies. So, you've got a big leg up on broadcasting the gala for Insurance Salesmen of the Year.
On Sunday, my article about Kukla, Fran and Ollie mentioned that in 1986, the show's creator Burr Tillistrom was inducted into the TV Academy Hall of Fame, unfortunately a year after he passed away.
Here are a couple of related things of interest. First, a long and eloquent tribute of Tillstrom on the TV Academy's official page that originally appeared in the program the night of his induction. It's a detailed and interesting history of how Kukla, Fran and Ollie came about, which you can read here.
Best of all, though, is a video of the induction itself. Alas, it doesn't include the film clip montage of the show that preceded the presentation, but it has pretty much the rest. And all the better, it's hosted by Jim Henson, and there to accept -- briefly but emotionally, affectionately and sweetly -- is Fran Allison.
Also unfortunately, I'm not able to embed it on these pages, but you can watch it here on the TV Academy's site.
Readers of these pages well-know my great love for Kukla, Fran and Ollie and the brilliant work of Burr Tillstrom. Here are 45 wonderful minutes of them. Contrary to the title of this video, it is not remotely "The Best of..." Rather, this is just a montage of material from their later years (or from just one year, for all I know), when the show was in color. So, this shouldn't be mistaken as anything more than that. But then, this remains a treat because most material on the show online (or anytime, period) is in black-and-white, since that's when so much of the program was done, and it's fun to see so much in vibrant color.
Most the Kuklapolitan players are here, if only some briefly -- Kukla, Ollie, Beulah Witch, Fletcher Rabbit and an aria from Madame Ogglepuss, along with a brief appearance from Ollie's niece, Dolores Dragon. Best of all for me is that we get to see my favorite, Cecil Blll (pronounced "Sess-uhl) who rarely got in the show, but Burr Tillstrom would pop him in every very-random once in a while. That's likely because Cecill Bill was totally lunatic, speaking in no discernible language that was known to Man, although every Kuklapolitan and Fran easily conversed with his "ta-toi-toi-toi's". He comes in at here the 38:23 mark, though it's impossible to miss him...
(Many years later, I discovered something wonderful about Tillstrom's thinking and Cecil Bill. There was a tremendous 50th anniversary tribute exhibit to Kukla, Fran and Ollie at the Chicago History Museum -- the TV show had been broadcast out of Chicago -- and as part of it, they had all the original puppets on display. (As well as the proscenium "stage" which you could wander behind and see how it was all set up.) And when looking close up at Cecil Bill, I noticed something I'd never caught before for all those many years on television. Tillstrom had Cecil Blll's mouth painted on crooked. It wasn't something you'd necessarily notice on a small screen, especially when black-and-white, but it added to the sense that something was just a bit "off" about him.),
About the only two Kuklapolitans I can think of who aren't in the video are Col. Crackie, who was enamored with Madame Ogglepuss, and Nell Minow. (Yes, really. You see, Nell's father Newton -- who later became the FCC Chairman under President Kennedy and famously referred to TV as a "Vast Wasteland" -- had been Burr Tillstrom's attorney back in Chicago. His young children would occasionally join their father when he had reason to visit the set. One day, a reporter was there doing an article about Tillstrom and the show, and Nell made it into the article. That's because when the reporter asked the little girl what she wanted to be when she grew up, she answered, "A Kuklapolitan." The good news is that I believe she made it.)
I wrote about the show extensively here, which is worth checking out not only for some of their history, but also a bunch of wonderful photos, including one of Burr Tillstrom, Kukla and Ollie with Jim Henson and Kermit the Frog.
And again to repeat, in no way is this the "Best of Kukla, Fran and Ollie," but it does give a very nice look at them in color, with plenty of songs mixed in. I have a friend who did some puppetry briefly but who didn't care much for Tillstrom's work because he didn't sync Oliver J. Dragon's mouth with the words he was speaking -- and also most of the other characters didn't even have movable mouths. This view exploded my head since it missed the entire point. Edgar Bergen also famously wasn't the most technically "meticulous" ventriloquist, something he would often even joke about in sketches, but it was the incredibly believable characters he created and the world he drew you into that made him legendary. And that was the same with Burr Tillstrom and his characters. It's why a young Nell Minow would want to be a Kuklapolitan when she grew up. Fran Allison's brilliance was making you believe that she fully, unquestioningly believed the Kuklapolitans were real, so you suspended disbelief and did so, too. Indeed, I would also argue that when a single man played all eight characters on live TV, often sang duets, and basically ad-libbed the entire shows with only a basic outline (and for decades at the same high level, winning two Emmys for the show, a seriously-impressive 17 years apart, in 1954 and 1971. And was inducted into the TV Academy Hall of Fame in 1986 -- with the presentation made by Jim Henson), his technical skills were majestic. In the end, what the "Best of" Kukla, Fran and Ollive was...was this isolated world of loving, believable characters that built over time and you were briefly a part of, not that there were specific moments or stories to single out.
By the way, Burr Tillstrom also won and Emmy and Peabody Award for "hand ballet" work he did on the series, That Was the Week That Was, which I posted here. But also, at the Chicago History Museum exhibit, they had on display a Jefferson Award -- Chicago's version of the Tony -- for Madame Ogglepuss, who Tillstrom portrayed as the Grandmother in an otherwise "all human" production of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music. And I only recently discovered that Burr Tillstrom had another impressive connection with Sondheim, when Tillstrom, Kukla and Ollie appeared on Broadway -- yes, really! -- as narrators in the third cast of the 1977 revue Side by Side by Sondheim!!! (They repeated this in the Chicago touring company -- replacing the original narrator there: Capt. Hook himself, Cyril Ritchard.)
That said, though the "Best of" Kukla Fran and Ollie was never inherently moments, there are some that over the many years were classic and memorable. Indeed, I suspect that any time that Madame Ogglepus organized the Kuklapolitan Players to perform one of her annual operas, usually Gilbert & Sullivan, the show especially soared. (I watched one such episode of The Mikado from that aforementioned Chicago Historical Society exhibit which was hysterical -- you could even hear the crew cracking up. And maybe a year later I was trying to describe this to a friend, when his face lit up. In honor of that 50th anniversary, the TV Academy itself had put on a tribute to Kukla, Fran and Ollie, which he went to -- I didn't know about it, but I was in Chicago at the time anyway -- ...and they showed that same episode about trying to put on The Mikado. And my friend, who is a massive opera buff, said that not only did he find it as hilarious as I described, but the auditorium full of 1,000 sophisticated TV professionals, watching this rough black-and-white broadcast from many decades earlier, were roaring with laughter throughout.)
This is not that. This is just a charming montage of enjoyable moments. But with Kukla, Fran and Ollie, that's in large part the whole point.
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, is a regular columnist for the Writers Guild of America and was for the Huffington Post. 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.
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