Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A.O. Scott on Film vs. TV

Are Films Bad or is TV Just Better?

A.O. Scott from October:

"Look back over the past decade. How many films have approached the moral complexity and sociological density of “The Sopranos” or “The Wire”? Engaged recent American history with the verve and insight of “Mad Men”? Turned indeterminacy and ambiguity into high entertainment with the conviction of “Lost”? Addressed modern families with the sharp humor and sly warmth of “Modern Family”"

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Newcomb/McPherson Conversation

Recently I've been thinking about Newcomb's cultural forum model of television, which I think remains a compelling, useful way to think about how television can work. The terms of how it works maybe re-theorized--and that's one of the things that my work has done tangentially. Here's a great conversation between Horace Newcomb and Tara McPherson that deals with some of Newcomb's reservations about the model, though it really ranges much wider.

Example, on the Iraq War:

"I do think one reason there may not be a more organized antiwar effort is because we are not forced to watch one of three networks every night and that we can avoid so much by watching something else. There is no authoritative core, no cultural center as there was in the 1960s. I don't want to romanticize that, it was a very repressive core in so many ways, but now you can choose to avoid ever seeing much about the war or you can express your opinions in a very fragmented media sphere."

Monday, November 01, 2010

Television, Gender, Feminism Clips

These two clips were made available through which amounts to a YouTube for scholars. Very useful, if only for these two great clips from the latest (and best) season of Mad Men.

Feminism vs. Civil Rights


Women Who Stare Back

Thursday, October 14, 2010

TV Criticism Syllabus Fall 2010

Week 1, 8/26: Why TV?: An Introduction to the Course

Week 2, 8/31 & 9/2: TV History, Style, and Industry Structure
Readings: Mittell, Chapters 1 & 2; Watts, “Melancholy, Merit, and Merchandise”
Screenings: Texaco Star Theater, Tales from Tomorrow, Ernie Kovacs

Week 3, 9/7 & 9/9: New TV Structures
Readings: Caldwell, “Convergence Television”; Brooker, “Living on Dawson’s Creek”
Screening: Tosh.0, Justified

Week 4, 9/14 & 9/16: Public Interest and Television Citizenship
Readings: Mittell, Chapters 3 & 4
Screening: Good Night and Good Luck

Week 5, 9/21 & 9/23: Modes of Production
Readings: Mittell, Chapter 5
Screening: All in the Family, I Love Lucy, The Good Guys
PAPER 1 DUE 9/23

Week 6, 9/28 & 9/30: Modes of Production, cont. COMEDY & GENRE?
Readings: Thompson, “Comedy Verite?”
Screenings: Louie, Curb Your Enthusiasm

Week 7, 10/5 & 10/7: Narrative Structure
Readings: Mittell, Chapter 6
Screenings: Mad Men, Northern Exposure

Week 8, 10/12 & 10/14 Narrative Structure, cont.
Readings: Johnson, “Watching TV Makes You Smarter,” Sconce, “What If?”
Screenings: Arrested Development, Freaks & Geeks

Week 9, 10/19 & 10/21: TV “Politics”
Readings: Mittell, Chapter 7; Newcomb & Hirsch, “Television as a Cultural Forum”
Screenings: Father Knows Best, Dragnet, Star Trek

Week 10, 10/26 & 10/28: Representing Identity
Readings: Mittell, Chapter 8; Santo, “Of Niggas and Citizens”; Dow, “Ellen, Television and the Politics of Gay and Lesbian Visibility”
Screenings: Boondocks, The Sarah Silverman Program

Week 11, 11/2 & 11/4: Representing Identity, cont.
Readings: Arthurs, “Sex and the City and Consumer Culture,” Kraszeweski, “Country Hicks and Urban Cliques”
Screenings: Mary Tyler Moore, Maude

Week 12, 11/9 & 11/11: Cult TV
Readings: Mittell, Chapter 9; Jenkins, “Star Trek Rerun, Reread, Rewritten”; Hills, “Defining Cult TV”
Screenings: Firefly, Slash Tapes

Week 13, 11/16 & 11/18: Children’s TV
Readings: Mittell, Chapter 10, Banet-Weiser, “Girls Rule! Gender, Feminism, and Nickelodeon”; McAllister and Giglio, “Commodity Flow of Children’s TV”
Screenings: Pee Wee’s Playhouse, iCarly
Paper #2 Due 11/18

Week 14, 11/23: TV Technologies
Mittell, Chapter 11
Screenings: Breaking Bad

Week 15: 11/30 & 12/2: TV & Taste
Readings: Thompson, “Good Demo, Bad Taste”; Rowe, “Roseanne: Unruly Woman as Domestic Goddess”
Screenings: Tim & Eric’s Awesome Show, Great Job!, Eastbound and Down

Week 16: 12/7 The End of Television (Criticism)
Parting thoughts, Review

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Dude, You Have No Quran!

This is what I call uplifting television. It's news coverage like this that gives me hope and here's why: 1) A Quran-burning is foiled in Amarillo, TX. If it can be foiled in Amarillo, it can be foiled anywhere. 2) There are enough Unitarian Universalists in Amarillo to outnumber potential Quran-burners, and they're organized! 3) The individual hero here is a skateboarder with truly hip hair and glasses, and he's a man of action.

Jacob Isom, you are the American Bad-Ass Patriot of the Week!

I first saw Jacob as I see many things, excerpted in Daily Show coverage. The actual footage embedded above I found after a friend/colleague posted it to Facebook. This week in my Television Criticism class we're talking about TV news and the public service function of TV. I'd say it's good timing because of the current hubbub about whether the media should have paid so much attention to that obviously wayward Florida pastor-apparently-without-a-congregation. I'd say that, but of course there's always some questionable media coverage going on. And ever generalizing about "the media" is a questionable act in itself.

Anyway, here's a link to a longer clip from the episode of the Daily Show. I can't get the embed code to work.

Aside from Jacob, the best moment of it is when Stewart describes TV news/the media as the dog from the movie Up, which is outfitted with a special collar that allows it to talk intelligently, but is still given to uncontrollable urges to drop everything at the sight of a "Squirrel!"

Anyway, the local news coverage from Amarillo makes me happy. Never thought I'd say that. Thank you, Jacob.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

iPad Destruction Meme

I'm not sure what I find more annoying, Steve Jobs' repeated assertions that the iPad is "magical" and "revolutionary", or all the new, painfully earnest iPhone 4 ads. On the latter, Apple seems to have decided they really need to teach people why they should want to be able to see each other as they talk on the phone. Hence the ad about the daughter embarrassed to show Dad her braces, the grandpa getting to see his new grandchild, the wife telling her husband that she's pregnant. I'd much rather have back the dancing silhouettes. At least I discovered some new music from those.

The iPad, on the other hand, has been on the receiving end of some violent media backlash. My favorite is from the Fuel TV show Built to Shred which is a show that features a very resourceful, very bearded host who makes spaces like the shut-down waterpark Raging Waters or a rundown industrial park skate-able with a little well-placed plywood and a cordless screwdriver.

In this episode, however, it's the iPad that gets "built to shred." The iPad gets trucks & wheels bonded on, and even some gently placed griptape. It then (not surprisingly) immediately cracks when first ridden. Things just get more graphic from there.

The whole clip reminds me of the first episode of South Park--specifically, the first time Kenny is killed. You may remember that he get's really really killed...stampeded by cows, run over by a car. Then rats eat his body. I think a bird pulls out his eye. It's good ol' carnivalesque revelry in the grotesque.

Another, briefer example is from Tosh.0. An iPad gets dispatched very quickly in the writer's room via golf club.

These examples seem symptomatic of a backlash not just against Apple, but against technology that thinks a little too much of itself. All the "magical", "revolutionary" comments and precious commercials are practically begging for such treatment. Seeing this abuse is thrilling, not just because it represents money wasted, but fetishized technology that we are supposed to treat so personally as extensions of ourselves, instead brutally destroyed.

It reminds me of the printer scene from Office Space, in which all of the characters' cubicle-induced rage is inflicted upon office technology while a Geto Boys song plays on the soundtrack. To those who destroy iPads for our viewing pleasure, I say, "Damn, I bet it feels good to be a gangster."

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Why the Sitcom Matters Now (and Figuring Out How it Can Matter More)

[The following is the expanded version of my response for the sitcom panel at the upcoming Flow Conference at UT Austin.]

Here, and moving forward, I want to think about what sitcoms can do to make comedy on television more responsive to our desperate need at the moment for more informed social dialogue. I want us to re-embrace the notion of TV as a cultural forum, and in particular, the role of the sitcom in that forum. I’d like to get away from focusing on stylistic or structural differences in sitcoms, or even their current trends of self-reflexivity and instead focus (or re-focus) on what are the enduring pleasures of the sitcom, and considering how those pleasures might hold promise for articulating and negotiating cultural conflict. Maybe, as the title of an upcoming Flow Conference panel I will be on suggests, “The Sitcoms Have Become Self-Aware.” But it’s what makes the shows “sitcoms” and not what makes them “self-aware” that I’m interested in.

Despite persistent rumors of its demise, there is clearly a continued taste for the sitcom. Nostalgia abounds for the old-fashioned, multicamera sitcom among journalist-critics (evident in the “sitcom is dead” rhetoric) and sitcom writer-producers such as Bill Lawrence (who made a multicamera episode of Scrubs as an homage to the format) and in the creation of shows like Comedy Central’s Big Lake, which appears to be attempting to force the ironic, self-reflexive trend in TV comedy into the multicamera, live audience format. (Similar attempts have been made before with Lucky Louie and That’s My Bush…I’m sure we can think of others.)

There is also evidence for audience taste for traditional sitcom pleasures. On the one hand, there is the continued success of sitcoms that academic and journalist-critics shun, but which Nielsen ratings suggest audiences love, such as How I Met Your Mother and Two and a Half Men. Then there is the very fact that critics are so vocal about shunning these shows and wishing there were “better” sitcoms more suited to their tastes and nostalgia. Sitcom nostalgia extends to general TV audiences as well. Besides the strip programming of syndicated sitcoms such as those just mentioned, and relics like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, I am recognizing among my students a growing trend of binging on DVDs of 1980s and 1990s sitcoms such as The Facts of Life and Full House, and brandishing knowledge of those texts and the ways in which they dealt with conflict as hip cultural capital. Maybe LOST will enjoy a longer life of binge viewing, but my students stare blankly at me when I talk about doing so with 24. Having done so with The Facts of Life, however, brings approving ooohs and aaahs.

Personally, my own sitcom nostalgia has got me watching episode after episode of The Bob Newhart Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show on Hulu. I have to admit that it’s sort of like what Mad Men does for me in drama: the production design (really the fashion and d├ęcor) provides me the necessary aesthetic distance with which I can enjoy all manner of self-destruction and over-indulgence. Without it, I might as well watch that douchebag Scott on Kourtney and Khloe Take Miami. Watching those early 1970s shows is similar. They are so awesomely dated in their fashion and reliance upon the proscenium that I can enjoy the popular pleasures of complication and resolution the traditional sitcom so efficiently provides.

Another sign of continued relevance of the sitcom is the breakout success of Modern Family, which adopts the comedy verite style to produce a narrative structure and visual style that seems about equal parts Arrested Development and When Harry Met Sally. I have argued before that rather than speaking of “mockumentary” style sitcoms, we ought to call them “comedy verite” because a number of these shows never directly address the camera (Arrested Development, Curb Your Enthusiasm) or suggest an actual documentary/reality crew presence aside from direct testimony (Parks and Recreation, Modern Family). In short, I think the style is prevalent enough that we ought to acknowledge its presence alongside single and multicamera as a mode of production because it’s really neither. (See my essay, Velvet Light Trap, Number 60, Fall 2007. And btw, Brett Mills called it that before me, focusing on performances in recent British sitcoms.)

We can look at a show like Modern Family to see what the format allows a sitcom to do aside from the traditional complication, confusion, alleviation structure. Besides the annoyingly exaggerated handheld camera, Modern Family uses the verite format to produce humor that deviates from linear narrative in ways conducive to more aggressively articulating cultural critique. The couch segments, in which individual characters or couples speak to the camera about their familial experiences, provide opportunities to cutaway to past comic episodes, at the same time they reiterate the persistence of the family, since they suggest that outside the immediate episode, the family persists, prevails, and can be positively reflected upon in order to teach us something.

Besides these specific segments, the verite design of the program suggests it has been rapidly edited, which in turn encourages the sort of non sequitur jokes and ironic moments we’ve become accustomed to in other kinds of comic programming. One other benefit of fitting traditional sitcom-style jokes into the verite format is that when something is said it doesn’t have to succeed at being funny, because there is no audience to respond with laughter, or no laugh track to suggest that an audience would have. A line doesn’t have to succeed at being funny; it can just be ironic, or poignant, or just a line.

Recognizing how nicely Modern Family fits the typical complication/confusion/alleviation (through family) model of the domestic sitcom described by Newcomb should help us recognize that the characters are characters again in the model of the domestic sitcom who fill specific familial roles and whom audiences can empathize with, rather than discursive figures who critique cultural stereotypes. While some have suggested that the show satirizes both modern families and sitcom constructions of families, I don’t see this at all. For example, the fact that the more “flamboyant-gay” character, Cameron, was once a college football player doesn’t undermine homophobic stereotypes; it throws his “gayness” in greater comic relief, allows him to identify with his partner Mitchell’s father more, and further highlights Mitchell’s failures at traditional masculinity. In short, even Cameron loves football! And isn’t that funny! I cringe during most scenes with Gloria; she seems employed as both a fiery Latina stereotype and an only slightly less emasculating Peg to Ed O’Neill’s Jay/Al Bundy.

Watch an episode of Modern Family and imagine how easily it could be transformed into a “filmed before a live studio-audience” sitcom with only the addition of some sound effects. Better yet, watch this clip where I have done it for you.

I don’t, however, simply wish to dismiss Modern Family as a regressive sitcom. Rather, I want to cite its popularity and success as evidence that sitcoms can, and should, do more to serve as a cultural forum. Bottom line: sitcoms can serve as the cultural forums we need aside from Fox and Friends, The View, Alex Jones, Glenn Beck—and aside from The Daily Show, Colbert Report, and yes, South Park, too. I’ll let someone else theorize about how dramas do or do not successfully deal with complicated social issues. I’m a comedy person, and so I look to comedy to be more innovative because I think it is ultimately the more successful forum for cultural dialogue. But I do think that there is something especially powerful about narrative, and about characters that viewers can empathize with, and this is why Jon Stewart, Colbert, or even a new Dave Chappelle isn’t enough. (Hell, while we’re at it, how about a new Richard Pryor?)

Given continued popularity of sitcoms, the abundance of “sitcom nostalgia,” and the embrace of the neo-traditional domestic sitcom Modern Family, I think it’s time to 1) reiterate how we define the sitcom by describing its narrative structure in ways that accommodate recent innovations in modes of production, performance, and visual style and 2) consider how that narrative structure can take advantage of such innovations to more aggressively mediate culture, articulating controversy more routinely, if less narratively framed, than it has in the past.

The latest edition of Newcomb’s TV: The Critical View doesn’t include the cultural forum essay, but I believe that the continued show of love for the sitcom, nostalgic and otherwise, suggests that the ritual of TV watching is still important, regardless whether it is done online, on-demand, time- and format-shifted, etc., and that the sitcom still holds a privileged place in television culture. Here is my recurring anecdotal evidence for this: if I casually talk about sitcoms with non-academic acquaintances, I don’t receive the immediate and obligatory revulsion that I get when talking about reality TV. (Mind you, if I talk about specific reality programs, I’m less likely to get that reaction.) General reaction: Reality = Uhg; Sitcom = Ahh.

What I do hope we can abandon from the critically-informed past is the notion that the sitcom is an essentially conservative format. The cultural forum argument ought to have pushed us past that—it’s more important what is discussed than how things end, or how we feel about the theatrical characters saying things. What I want to think about is how the sitcom format could now be pushed (thanks to narrowcasting, pay cable, YouTube, et al.) to articulate pressing political issues in a way that counters the likes of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. Those two pop culture creations have been granted powers to “connect the dots” between real public discontent and alienation with conspiracies and right-wing flights of fancy less bounded by rationality than the most outlandish fantastic sitcom from the 1960s.

Is it unreasonable to ask a sitcom (particularly one that purports to be “modern”) to do better in 22 minutes? Given the damage that Glenn Beck can do in two, I don’t think so.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Whatever happened to TV as furniture?

Spend any time looking at old TV ads from the 50s, and it's clear a lot more thought used to be put into how a TV "fit" into a home's decor than nowadays. Sets routinely were advertised with various styles of cabinets--colonial, modern, etc.--all the better to fit the home. This ad goes a step further, suggesting the TV could be folded away into a normal piece of furniture. Of course, this is just a cousin to the old console TVs included a turntable, speakers, vacuum tubes, etc. and had to be a good looking piece of furniture as they were bound to dominant any room.

With only a few minor bleeps in the last 50 years, TV design has pretty much been all about the "ers"--bigger, flatter, thinner, higher def-er. Why hasn't anyone done what Apple did for the PC, first in the 80s and then at the end of the 90s with the iMac, giving us a TV as design fetish object? How come the only sweet looking TV in the last 40 years has been the JVC videosphere, which might look cool on my office shelf (if I could find one on eBay), but I'm pretty sure won't hook up to my DirecTV box?

Instead, I am presented with the tantalizing option of hanging my TV on the wall, as if this has always been the fantasy of how TV should fit in a room, rendering it part of the architecture as much as decor. Of course, that's nonsense. TVs are, by definition, meant to be seen. I'm sure we all know someone who keeps a TV in a cabinet, behind a screen, or in an armoire. But aren't the doors always open?

With so many corporate TV death rays set on mobile TV, there is also the other trend of TVs getting smaller. Maybe this will lead to putting them in interesting cases, which will mysteriously remain immobile. Since I'm no industrial designer, here are my specific instructions: I want a new HD Videosphere and I want it to have built in Wifi so I can connect to Hulu and Netflix. I'll stick it next to my bed, on a side table. That seems straight forward enough. Can I really be the only one?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

My Weird Exhibitionist, Narcissistic Streak Reveals My House

For some reason, I decided to take some snapshots of our house to the Apartment Therapy blog. I guess I needed some positive reinforcement, a pat on the head of sorts. Kind of fun to read other people say nice things about our place. (pat, pat, pat)

Ethan's Southern Texas Modern Vintage

Baby Preacher with subtitles

Watch this baby perform a devastating parodic critique of his clueless preaching elders!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Mixtape: I Wanna Be Your Adored Dog

I found a super easy way to export an iTunes playlist as a single "chapterized" file--app called "Joined Together." Perfect for making and sharing a mixtape. I present to you my latest. Although it's one file, you can skip around and see the titles of the various songs as it plays.

Download I Wanna Be Your Adored Dog (60-something megs...but it's worth it!).

Here's the playlist:

  1. I Wanna Be Adored- The Stone Roses
  2. I Got a Man - Positive K
  3. I Can Do Anything (Delacratic) - De la Soul
  4. I'm a Cuckoo - Belle & Sebastian
  5. I'm Finding it Harder to Be A Gentleman - White Stripes
  6. I Don't Wanna Walk Around with You - Ramones
  7. I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor - Artic Monkeys
  8. I Bleed - Pixies
  9. I Can't Get No Satisfaction - Gary McFarland
  10. I Can't Go for That - The Bird and the Bee
  11. I Didn't Know I Love You Until I Saw You Rock'n'Roll - Vaselines
  12. I Found that Essence Rare - Gang of Four
  13. I Had to Tell You - 13th Floor Elevators
  14. I Know I Know I Know - Tegan & Sara
  15. I Know I'll See You - A Place to Bury Strangers
  16. I Still Believe - Tim Capello
  17. I Turn My Camera On (John McEntire Remix) - Spoon
  18. I Want You! Peter Bjorn and John
  19. I Wanna Be Your Dog (Acoustic Demo) - Uncle Tupelo

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Chapter abstracts from my upcoming book

My final manuscript (10+ years in the making) for my book, now titled Parody and Taste in Postwar American Television Culture is due at the publisher next week. Here are the chapter abstracts. I will hopefully be able to provide chapter pdfs to those interested who might want to use them in courses on TV history or TV comedy. I also hope the book will prove useful to anyone working on television comedy.

Introduction: The Parodic Impulse in the (Not-So) Fabulous Fifties
The introduction outlines the key historical and theoretical concerns and approaches of the book, surveying cultural criticism of the postwar period and critical approaches to the study of humor and parody in particular. The introduction sets the stage for an analysis of parody in postwar culture that acknowledges that the pedagogic as well as entertainment functions of parody both fundamentally shaped how viewers made sense of TV during the first decade of America’s adjustment to television culture.

Chapter 1: The New, Sick Sense: The Mediation of America’s Health and Humor at Mid-Century
This chapter examines a variety of television shows, comedy albums, and newspaper and magazine articles to understand how comedy in the late 1950s and early 1960s functioned in the articulation of identity in relation to perceptions of what it meant to be “normal.” During this time, television and the popular press took note that a new type of humor was developing: comedy was simultaneously becoming more socially relevant and breaking more social taboos. This new, socially relevant postwar humor that was often labeled “sick” (particularly that of Shelley Berman and Lenny Bruce) is examined to show how television propagated and popularized criticisms of postwar American culture

Chapter 2: What, Me Subversive? MAD Magazine and the Textual Strategies and Cultural Politics of Parody           
This chapter examines how MAD Magazine, through its parodies of movies, television, and advertising, armed readers with protocols for the reading of texts based on strategies of recycling, reappropriation, and recombination. Through analysis of articles from that magazine’s first decade as well as popular and critical responses (including that of the FBI), this chapter shows how MAD popularized decoding strategies as humorous-but-necessary exercises. MAD demanded the reader go outside the immediate text to uncover its meaning, and in doing so established its countercultural status as a monument to irreverence over the same period television became a fixture within the vast majority of American homes.

Chapter 3: The Parodic Sensibility and the Sophisticated Gaze: Masculinity and Taste in Playboy’s Penthouse\
The dramatic success of Playboy magazine in the 1950s paralleled the meteoric rise of television, but the magazine’s relationship with the new electronic medium was an uneasy one. This chapter examines how Playboy promoted a taste for parody as a form of cultural capital essential to its model of “sophisticated” masculine identity. The tensions between Playboy and television were especially apparent in Playboy’s own syndicated program, Playboy’s Penthouse (1959-1961). Analysis of that program’s urbane performances and distinctive televisual style show how it self-consciously offered a version of sophisticated television production that supplemented the magazine’s model of sophisticated television watching.

Chapter 4: Ernie Kovacs and the Logics of Television Parody and Electronic Trickery
Ernie Kovacs has posthumously been deemed the first video artist, but his aesthetic was also deeply steeped in parody. By looking at a wide variety of his programs and examining archival production documents and press coverage, this chapter examines how his parodic strategies fit within mainstream TV practices, from the vaudeville aesthetic of early comedy, to the loosely scripted talk format, to the fundamental need in commodity culture for product differentiation. This chapter seeks to refigure our understanding of Kovacs’s contribution to television culture at the same time it explores how parody functions in the formation of taste and identity.

Chapter 5: Black Tie, Straightjacket: Oscar Levant’s Sick Life on TV
Oscar Levant was a peculiar star of postwar culture, a concert pianist turned radio and television personality, who hosted a local show in Los Angeles in the late 1950s. This chapter investigates how The Oscar Levant Show cultivated a devoted following through Levant’s “sick” star persona and humor that incorporated a popularized and ambivalent form of mass culture critique. Oscar’s frequent tirades against his sponsors, his wide-ranging guests (Fred Astaire, Alduous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood), as well as his put-downs of celebrities connected with audiences who identified with his sick take on postwar culture and critics who certified Levant as quality culture and antidote to television mediocrity.

Conclusion: Television for People Who Hate Television?
The conclusion draws together the themes developed throughout the book, summarizing how television culture served as a catalyst for reflection not only on TV content, but the forces shaping that content in both its production and reception contexts. Through focusing on the relationships between parody and early television, we can trace out the ways in which Americans have grown accustomed to understanding politics, current events, and popular culture through parodic humor that can be simultaneously critical, commercial, and funny.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Dos Modos: Bedroom Side Table Project

My wife reads lots of books. I like to stack things. Thus, when she suggested her Mother's Day present from me could be a couple of side tables, I jumped at the chance. It had been a while since my last construction project (long enough that I had forgotten my general lack of construction "craft") and I was hankering to add another modern touch to the house.

As a model, I took Modernica's "Case Study" side tables that they sell to go along with their Case Study Bed, which we have. However, Modernica's tables are $500 a pop, which seems exorbitant for something made out of Plywood that doesn't have "Eames" attached to it. Also, in my opinion they are too wide, and would basically look silly in our small bedroom. So, after some discussion, we settled on a smaller version, with an opening on the side in place of Modernica's single drawer. This would actually be more functional, since we were both looking to use the tables to store reading materials, something a drawer isn't really good for.

I'm posting a scan of my plans, showing Modernica's table with my dimensions and alterations. I settled on a 20x20 back, made of two pieces of 3/4" plywood glued together, with a top of 17.5x20, atop two 10" hairpin legs I ordered online. The opening would be 6-7 inches high, depending on how things went. "How things went" turned out to not be exactly as planned, but in the end, came out almost exactly as I had initially hoped, dimension-wise at least.

The legs were bought from and was easily the most expensive part of the project. For four legs plus shipping, the total was just under $100. They shipped pretty quickly, and once I had ordered them, I was committed to the project. The surprise, money-wise, was the affordable plywood I got from Sutherland's: $35 for a 4x8 sheet of 3/4 inch cabinet-grade birch. My plan would would take up almost all of that sheet, with enough left for scrap to keep me comfortable.

On my last project I learned that perhaps the single most important component is being able to cut your pieces consistently, so I asked for a favor and had a friend cut my plywood on a very nice table saw in his shop rather than attempting it myself. Since I was making two matching pieces, this was important, and since I didn't want it made of anything except the plywood, it all had to match together nicely. The initial plan was for it all to be held together with carpenter's glue, with just a few screw supports in the back. That ended up changing as I decided to screw into the upright pieces from the bottom of the table. This was fine, though, because you can't see those screws, or the ones in the back. So it basically looks held together without screws or nails although it is very sturdy.

My biggest miscalculation was not realizing that the 10-inch legs weren't actually 10-inches high because they sit at an angle. This meant my tabletop wasn't high enough when first assembled. I remedied this by 1) cutting a scrap piece to attach the legs to which was in turn attached to the bottom of the table and 2) making the riser piece 7 inches instead of 6. With those changes made, I got to my target numbers of the initial design. Prior to this, as you can see in this picture of the table clamped together for assembly, the design looked goofy, with the back of the table far too tall. You can also see an essential tool for this job: "Quick Grips" to hold the pieces in place as you screw as well as hold them tight for glue to bond.

In the end, I have again confirmed that I am more designer than craftsman. I enjoy the process of building, but I would be better off having someone with more patience and skill put the thing together. Another mistake I made was putting too much polyurethane on the top pieces, which I did with multiple layers, sanding between each. Still, the end product is pretty sweet plywood modern furniture. Total price, just under $200 for both tables.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Chelsea Handler article

A couple of weeks ago I was interviewed by a reporter for the Houston Chronicle, Tara Dooley, about comedian/talk show host Chelsea Handler. I had a nice conversation with Tara for about 45 minutes about my thoughts about Chelsea, placing her show within the context of post-network TV, as well as various female comedians.

I got interested in Chelsea a couple of years ago during the presidential election, and truth is, I don't watch her show nearly as much anymore. During 2008, I thought it was striking how outspoken she was on her show RE her support for Obama. I talked about this at Flow 2008 and ICA 2009. Though her show on E! is pretty much nonstop celebrity snark, occasionally something more "relevant" continues to work its way in...

Chelsea remains interesting for that reason (and she's funny, too). The larger point that I made at the conference discussions was that the so-called "political" moments that people remember or cause controversy are rarely in predictable places. It's when we least suspect them...

Anyway, the resulting article from my interview is a good one. Have a read: Chelsea is working hard, lately

Monday, March 15, 2010

"Your Office" Photo Album

The Office is Closed: WGA Strike Video

Posted this on the blog prior to my presentation at SCMS 2010 in Los Angeles. Turns out Max Dawson and I both used the clip.

I'm writing about the Office's online content as an example of convergence comedy. This protest video is pretty much better than any of the official content, and I think it's the natural, subversive product of the two governing aesthetic guides to the show's online comedy. First off, Max Dawson writes about the "aesthetic of efficiency" of webisodes, and uses "The Accountants" which is spoken about here as an example.

My presentation was all about the "other" non-webisode content, which I think is overall guided by what I call, following Max's model, an "aesthetic of play". Basically, while the webisodes provide what Max describes as a dual promotion/entertainment function, most of the other content is more participatory...allowing you to play with the show, whether making wise-cracking comments or doing tasks on Dunder-Mifflin Infinity. More on this subject to come...

Behind the Scenes of "The Mentor" from The Office Online

This is a webisode about a webisode...

Monday, February 08, 2010

NATPE: David Zaslav, President and CEO Discovery Communications

Zaslav was introduced as the CEO and President of the "strongest platform media company in the world"--and the number one item of interest up for discussion seemed to be the Oprah Winfrey Network. Zaslav talked about that and had some other interesting comments on the state and future of the industry. Besides Oprah, Zaslav was optimistic about 3D TV, promising a 24-7 3D channel to compliment Discovery's 7 all HD channels.  In his keynote he outlined what he believed to be future fundamentals:

1) Quality content is the key to growth 
2) the TV set will remain the center of television consumption in the home. 
3) Social media: Need to acknowledge that "viewers are the experts" and executives needed to be able to follow their leads. He mentioned that social media made "River Monsters" the most successful show in Animal Planet history (a program that had very little marketing) thru more or less social media word-of-mouth. He also compared social media to what MTV used to be...the place where people go to see what people wear, listen to, etc. I thought that was an interesting comparison. TV companies "must acquire assets to play in that space."
4) International distribution is the key to growth. He said that international markets are like cable was 10 years ago, specifically mentioning Russia, Romania, Poland, and India. Companies need to take content and channels outside the US.

Before the Q&A, a promo for OWN ran (featuring the indie music stylines of Los Campesinos!). The network launches in 80 million homes. The right way to launch a network, whether or not you are Oprah.

Zaslav also had some interesting things to say about the importance of branding in TV’s current landscape. His mantra was “Strong brands, strong programming, stay on brand.” He credited Discovery for staying basically on its foundational brand, while others have refashioned themselves, such as A&E. When he initially came to Discovery, one of the things he did was get rid of “biker and tattoo stuff” to return to that brand image.

Another thing separating Discovery from other cable channels is that Discovery owns almost all of its content, which he credited to the desire to be able to air them over all platforms. In terms of defining “quality”, he said it was their business to identify the great storytellers and getting them to “work with us.” Beyond that, quality meant “great storytelling” and “original characters.”

As another branding case, he talked about how the success of Jon & Kate enabled TLC to rebuild itself after losing an audience by diluting its brand with too much A&E or Bravo-type programming. I’m not sure exactly what he meant—but I thought of “What Not to Wear” a show I like, but does seem more Bravo, I suppose. Anyway, the popularity of J&K created a moment when “women in America were finding the channel” and they could take advantage of that.

Back on the 3D tip, Zaslav again expressed his belief in its future by suggesting that 3D gaming might drive the sets into homes. Basically, thru teens who want it for gaming…then others will find they want it for sports, etc. He thinks the creative community will want it as well, especially following the success of Avatar. He also described how Sony planned to provide programming and had interests thru selling sets, as well as content in films and music acts. Discovery itself, he pointed out, had a 20 year library which it could upconvert.

Zaslav seemed smart about online distribution, talking about Mythbusters and how that show had incorporated shortform videos as well as promoting viewer participation. They don’t post shows, but clips. And also encouraged viewers to submit their own videos suggesting “myths to bust.” Apparently the Mythbuster guys are keen on this stuff.

Before taking over Discovery, Zaslav was at NBC Universal for 20 years. Unfortunately, the interviewer was not successful at getting him to dish some dirt on his form employer.

One moment that caused me to shudder was in reference to Discovery’s “Planet Green” channel, which apparently hasn’t caught on. Zaslav said the company is no longer emphasizing it because he felt “there’s been a political/cultural shift”. The company is no embracing a “lighter” approach to the network.

Again, he was tight-lipped about what OWN would feature in terms of Oprah’s role, though he assured viewers would “feel her presence in a meaningful way.”

A recurring theme among the week’s speakers was a notable relief that the NY Times was soon going to require online readers to pay. He warned, however, that entertainment companies had created the expectations for free content by giving it away to start with. With the NYT, Hulu, and Variety all starting to charge, he saw this as a “shift” (excuse?) to charge.

Lastly, he said that Discovery has people watching YouTube and trawling the social networks. They want to know what people think about their shows.

Nice work, if you can find it.

Friday, February 05, 2010

NATPE: Jeff Gaspin, Chairman, NBC Universal Television Entertainment

Conan O'Brien Vs NBC was on everyone's mind at NATPE. It was a constant opener in discussions, and more than one punchline. Jeff Gaspin had no hope of avoiding the topic of that $45 million for nothing to Conan, especially on the heels of the announcement just before the conference that NBC would lose $250 million on the Olympics.  Let's have a look at who this guy is. The following comes straight off the NBC Universal executive bio pages:

Jeff Gaspin, who was promoted to Chairman, NBC Universal Television Entertainment in July 2009, oversees all business, creative, production, distribution and marketing aspects of NBC Universal's wide-ranging entertainment television operations. 
Among the businesses he's responsible for are NBC Entertainment (home of critically acclaimed and popular shows including "30 Rock," "The Office," "Heroes," "The Apprentice," "The Tonight Show," "Saturday Night Live," "Days of our Lives," and the "Law & Order" franchise); cable's top-rated USA Network and buzz-generating, growing channels Syfy, Bravo, Oxygen, Chiller, Sleuth, and Universal HD; Spanish language outlets Telemundo and Mun2; TV production companies Universal Media Studios (which produces dozens of top shows, including "House" and "30 Rock") and Universal Cable Productions...
And on and on and on and on... I appreciate Jeff Gaspin's apparent candor, but I fear he may be out of a job in the next year.

The absolute best line of the entire conference came when Gaspin was asked about how NBC could possibly justify/be optimistic about the prospect of losing $250 million on the Olympics. From his perspective, the Olympics "will be a cleansing moment" for the network before relaunching their schedule March 1. $250 million buys one helluva shower. Or is the "cleansing" more of an enema? I apologize, but the guy asked for it.

Other Gaspin nuggets: He admitted that he was surprised that Conan was "so emotional" about the scheduling situation. Gaspin just shrugged, and said repeatedly that he thought they had come up with a plan to keep both Leno and O'Brien...and also admitted that they goal that started all this to begin with was wanting to keep Jay in the first place.

Jay! Jay! Jay! Always Jay! At some point I will pontificate on the nut-so scheduling choice of stripping Leno during primetime--which goes against typical network programming strategies regardless of the personalities involved, by taking late-night programming and throwing it in primetime. But I'll save that rant for later.

Asked whether the network now had an image problem, Gaspin tried to shrug it off. "What hurts us is not having enough hits on the air." Which, I guess, is true. What can I say. After he loses this job, he has a future in politics. "The economy is bad because not enough people have jobs." Etc. Etc. Later he admitted that the bottom line was NBC did have an image problem IF the creative community was alienated from the network.

Gaspin admitted that he thought the company had taken too much out of the broadcast business with its emphasis on cable (USA especially), a move which made sense for the company, but not the network.

On the optimistic tip, Gaspin pointed out NBC's aggressive program development: 20 pilots will be done this year. Later, admitting that 55% of those would be produced by NBC. "I really just want to get the best shows on the air," he said. He admitted that he might use a hit as a loss leader, pointing out that he liked how FOX uses House (produced by NBC) to launch other shows. "Broadcasting" equals network + studio according to Gaspin, and those two together are still a good business model. The upfronts would be "a time to celebrate broadcasting" presumably meaning not just what NBC had on the air, but what it was producing for other broadcasters.

Asked whether the Comcast deals was affecting NBC currently he said they couldn't at all because they aren't allowed to participate in any decisions until regulatory approval. So he didn't offer any suggestions about how anyone might be forward-thinking about this new ownership model, how it might change what NBC does. Actually, listening to him, I believe he probably doesn't have much of that "vision thing" to offer.

Finally, Gaspin was asked what he had learned in his time as chairman at NBC. He took a nice long time coming up with an answer. Finally, he said he had underestimated the emotions involved, particularly those of Conan, and thought he had simply presented a logical plan for keeping both onboard.  He also said he was surprised by the speed of the public discussion--and even recognized that people were bloggering/twittering what he was saying then.

Well, took me another week, actually.

NATPE: Bill Lawrence, creator/showrunner Scrubs & Cougar Town

Full disclosure: I don't watch Scrubs. I don't mean I don't regularly watch Scrubs; I mean I've never watched Scrubs. I haven't seen Garden State either. Zach Braff doesn't do it for me. Having said that, I found Bill Lawrence genuinely entertaining, and more importantly, he seemed like a thoughtful guy. He was also extremely gratified when my colleage Kevin Sandler from Arizona State told him he shows the episode "My Life in Four Cameras" in his television course.

But enough about my personal feelings, and on to my "take-aways" from his talk, moderated by J. Max Robbins from the Paley Media Center. Since this is a blog few people will read, I am going to be sporadic in how I translate my notes. But I fear I'd better do it soon, before I forget what the nonsense I scrawled down means.

On the importance and shifting role of the showrunner, Lawrence stressed that he believed "TV is an execution business" while the movie business is idea-driven. Hence the showrunner's importance maintaining consistency, as opposed to the individual development (of an idea/story if not individual creative voice) in film.

On the difficulty of getting a new sitcom on the air, Lawrence said he was working with someone who wanted to make a show about an adoption agency. Turns out 11 adoption agency sitcoms had already been registered with the WGA in one year.

On empathy in comedy, he said he thought characters who actually care for one another make comic stakes higher, and that people (viewers) need something emotional to hang on. He said that he thought maybe that was what stopped Arrested Development from catching on. This was the second time that point had been brought up. Earlier in the day, there was a panel for Modern Family, the producers of which pretty much admitted that they wanted to make Arrested Development--but with feeling.

On how he would change the development process: get rid of all the extra hoops of mid-management that clog up development at the networks. He contrasted this to the "Grant Tinker" approach which didn't have all that.

On good and bad pitches:

One of ABC's presidents fell asleep when he was pitching Scrubs.  He was shocked because he thought the pitch was so good--everything was true, based on a real-life JD who was a huge screw-up.

Worst pitch: to Kevin Reilly, President of NBC at the time. When changes were suggested to Lawrence, he countered "you should write that." He then warned the audience to beware of comments which give you five minutes of joy followed by many, many, many more without it.

Best pitch: Clone High to MTV.

Lawrence also talked about Cougar Town, a show that purportedly has more women writers on staff than men--uncommon for a comedy. Since the core of the show is about how men and women approach things different, this was necessary.

On Scrubs moving from NBC to ABC, classic stuff on the dynamics of TV production, distribution, and ownership today. ABC owned the show, which meant NBC could only make money off selling ads. When ABC picked it up, they therefore stood to make more money through "syndie".

On convergence and comedy: Lawrence was asked how much he thinks about people watching "bits and bytes" of comedy online when he writes/produces the show. He admitted that they always are sure to incorporate some "internet-ready" bit that will self-promote the show. An example was an airband version of "More than a Feeling."

More: "There are no quick hits in network TV, but on the Internet...the person who can monetize" will make a fortune." He also stressed that the opportunities to hustle a small company are still there.

On "My Life in Four Cameras": Lawrence said he believes that there's nothing as immediate and gratifying as the multicamera sitcom, "nothing purer than the multicamera" sitcom for "pure escapist entertainment." However, he related that doors kept getting shut in his face when he pitched multicamera shows. The episode was a response to that; a "love letter" to the multicamera sitcom that he said many people thought was a "slam" of it.

I took copious notes during the National Association of Television Program Executives conference in Las Vegas last week. I'll be posting them piecemeal, but I really need to because I found the individual presentations very interesting and informative. All about what people working in various capacities in the industry think is happening. Lots of comments about NBC and Leno.