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.
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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