Sunday, June 14, 2015


We're back and blogging with a special GUEST POST about something I have been involved in for five years. And this night never fails to lift my artistic spirits and give me a boost of much needed positive energy...

Red Sandcastle owner Rosemary Doyle and singers bring the house down at JLR.

Monthly Open Mic Keeps Toronto's Musical Theatre Lovers Singing For 5 Years

Jill’s Living Room doesn’t take place in an actual living room. The monthly musical-theatre open mic happens in a darkened East End theatre space, replete with showbiz lighting, plenty of seats and a piano.

But like a friend’s living room, the event has a laid-back, friendly vibe that has attracted amateur and professional singers alike since 2010. On Monday, June 29, Jill’s Living Room—which founder Jill Léger bills as a “safe place to sing”—will celebrate its fifth anniversary.

“I started Jill’s Living Room kind of selfishly,” says Léger, who is also a songwriter-lyricist. “In 2010, I had just started taking voice lessons and was looking for a place where I could publicly try out some of the techniques I was learning and not feel embarrassed if I couldn’t hit a note or if I forgot to breathe. And as a songwriter, I also wanted a place where I could sometimes test-drive my own material.”

Léger floated the idea of starting her own open mic with her voice teacher, East End instructor Louisa Burgess Corbett. Corbett liked the idea and agreed to help populate the event with her students.

The first “JLR” took place in a rehearsal space at the Second City Training Centre in downtown Toronto. Attendance was sporadic in the early days but picked up as word of mouth spread. Today, Léger said that a typical evening draws about 15 singers, each performing up to two songs in the allotted two hours.

JLR relocated to the Red Sandcastle Theatre on Queen East in 2012. Not only was the new venue closer to Léger’s Little India home, but owner Rosemary Doyle was especially supportive, agreeing to man the box office and help with set up.

“I always say Rosemary is a friend to all artists,” says Léger, who produced a revue of her own music at the Red Sandcastle in 2012. “She really worked with me, helping ensure it could work from a financial standpoint. She’s also spread the word about what we’re doing.”

Léger knew the event would work only if she could hire top-drawer piano accompanists--musicians skilled enough to make even the most fledgling singer feel supported and comfortable. Her current roster of accompanists includes Stratford’s Michael Barber, impresario Chris Tsujiuchi, the Shaw Festival’s Paul Moody, versatile accompanist Julia Sunay and jazz recording artist Jim Clayton.

Léger said the night continues to attract performers of all ages and levels, and the songs they choose are always an agreeably eclectic mix—though most hew to the musical-theatre genre
Jill's Living Room founder Jill Leger takes the spotlight.

“We have kids get up and belt tunes from ‘Annie,’” Léger said. “We have folks in their 60s doing standards. We have first-time performers and people who have sung on Broadway. At a typical JLR, you will probably hear at least one song by Jason Robert Brown, Stephen Schwartz and Stephen Sondheim. But you will also hear material that’s under the radar, maybe a song by Flanders and Swann, Randy Newman or Tom Lehrer. I sometimes think of renaming the event ‘What’s that from?’ because so many times someone performs some obscure, fabulous gem and everyone then wants to know the details so they can look it up.”

Like Léger herself, many also perform original pieces, sometimes tunes slated for SummerWorks or the Fringe. Musicians occasionally accompany themselves on piano, guitar, ukelele or (once) harmonica. The night usually includes at least one singalong, and sometimes there’s even cake.

“It’s always a great time,” said Léger, who added that non-singers are more than welcome. “You don’t have to be one of the singers to enjoy it. For my money, it’s the best show in town for ten bucks.”

But of course, Léger hopes it can be more than that as well.

“JLR is fundamentally about safety,” she said. “It’s about creating a space full of love and support where people can feel safe to sing out—to polish delivery or technique, rekindle a dream or simply share music that’s personally meaningful.”

She added that JLR is also about community.

“For those of us in love with the genre of musical theatre, there is really nothing quite like gathering in a darkened space to celebrate the music and the wordplay with like-minded individuals,” she said. “There’s always lots of laughter and hugs, and sometimes tears, but only the good kind. I always leave JLR feeling like Gene Kelly, dancing up the sidewalk.”

Jill’s Living Room takes place the last Monday of every month at the Red Sandcastle Theatre, 922 Queen St. East, 8pm to 10pm. Everyone who attends is asked to pay $10 at the door to cover the space and the accompanist.

Live the adventure!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Toronto Fringe Reviews - THE SOAPS and MISPRINT

Managed to catch a few shows at the Toronto Fringe Festival.

The Soaps was a terrific improvised Fringe Show filled to brimming with the veteran, comedic/improv talent that is the National Theatre of the World. The soap opera framework is a perfect venue to showcase the kind of oddball characters and ridiculous plot twists that improv thrives and the cast obviously enjoy playing with each other.

With so many quick wits on the stage, there is a danger of a show like this becoming too static and verbal. For me, the most extraordinary moments occurred when the performers strayed out of their heads and let their bodies lead them to new heights of hilarity. A brief scene of a custodian character learning how to actually stop working and sit down in a chair for the first time in his life, while reacting to his first touch of a woman (as she helps him sit) was particularly delightful.

The Soaps isn't just happening at the Fringe. It's one of a series of ongoing NTotW shows happening regularly in Toronto. Check out their website to see what's coming up.

On Friday afternoon, I saw a work with a ton of potential both onstage and off. It's not surprising that MISPRINT, "A comic book musical comedy" by Lauren Toffin and Yan Li, was chosen pick of the Fringe for its venue, the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse.

There is an extraordinary amount of talent on display in Misprint – a musical take-off of an Archie-esque comic book town. For musicality and ambition this show can't be beat. The cast is uniformly talented. Every number is superbly brought to life by a delightful cast and a wonderful mix of voices. Particular stand-outs are Kristen Sehn and Laren Toffan, who bring their polar-opposite, cartoon girlfriend characters to exquisite, three-dimensional life.

Composer Yan Li's musical ability is undeniable. Like many young composers, the work owes too great debt to Sondheim-esque grandiosity at times. But most young musicians don't have this kind of talent to back that up. Li’s lyrics are also incredibly mature, carrying delightful rhyme schemes that scan sublimely, punctuating his points without hitting you over the head.

The play starts out smashingly with three knockout numbers that intrigue with the depth lying underneath what initially seem like cardboard characters. I invested in these characters immediately and eagerly waited to see their story unfold. But I was disappointed when the play seemed to veer away from story and character for a confusing commentary on living in comic book Hell that leads in circles.

Artist Alex Toth once said, “I spent the first half of my career learning what to put into my art, and the second half learning what to leave out.” Like all great art, Misprint shines best at its most simple. Halfway though the craziness, the play pauses for a delicate love song revealing the heartbreak of remaining in the background, deftly balancing the humanity of the character with a matching comic book conceit. For a brief, shining moment, I cared about the characters again.

Even with the unfortunate change in direction Misprint never fails to entertain and is worth rushing out to see ASAP. There is a respect for the musical genre and level of craft on display here that is truly rare. Heck, two days later the music is still bouncing in my head.

But these characters and this show could have lived on in our hearts and minds for long after the curtain closed.

I look forward to seeing what comes in Misprint's next issue!

Live the adventure.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Toronto Screenwriting Conference - Spend a weekend with the creators of the Simpsons, Arrested Development, How I met Your Mother, etc.


April 10th and 11th (This weekend!!!)
The Ted Rogers School of Management
55 Dundas Street W.

More information at their website.

A good friend has organized this sucker and if anyone is interested in pro writing it's worth a look. It's the first one but they didn't do much advance advertising so I'm sure there is still room.

The Guest Speaker List (with a focus on Q&A's) is pretty awesome and there are some great genre names! These are great people to get in front of:

Rhett Reese (Monsters Inc. Zombieland, Deadpool, Earth vs Moon, G.I. Joe 2)

Tim Long (The Simpsons, The Late Show with David Letterman)

Chuck Tatham (Arrested Development, Andy Barker P.I., How I Met YourMother, Shrek 3 and sadly, punch up work on Wild hogs - a thankless task if ever there was one.)

Robert Cooper (PSI Factor, Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis, Stargate Universe and the only guy in my film class years ago that you could actually point to and say he'd be successful. How I hate him!)

Rob Zotnowski (Sam Raimi's producing partner and head of Drama Development for CBS, who recently helped open the door for Canadian shows in US prime time. He's the guy who helped bring us all the CSI's, NCIS: Los Angeles, The Good Wife, Criminal Minds, The Mentalist, Flashpoint, Ghost Whisperer, Everybody Loves Raymond and Two and a Half Men)

Sheldon Bull (Old School creator with a ton of experience like Coach, Newhart and er, Sabrina the Teenage Witch)

Ellen Sandler (Coach, Everybody Loves Raymond and the book The TV Writer's Workbook)

Rounding out the event are some high-profile working script consultants and authors.

Jump in while it's hot!

Live the adventure!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Writer’s Blockhead 01: A Working Writer’s Bulletin Board

Originally posted on the new Canimation Blog, maintained by Canadian animation writers.

Live the adventure.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Remembering JD Salinger - Catcher in the Rye author is a unifying and devisive figure

"There is a marvellous peace in not publishing.... Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure."- J. D. Salinger to the New York Times, 1974

With the passing this week of the western world’s most famous recluse author, J. D. Salinger, people are falling all over themselves to put into a perspective the work of a man who hasn’t published since the June 19, 1965 issue of the New Yorker (Hapworth 16, 1924). I’ve kept my linking for this limited to the two papers I read over the weekend, the National Post and the Globe and Mail, which provide a nice cross-section of coverage.

Robert Fulford of the Post had a nice, balanced analysis of Salinger’s most famous work, 1951’s The Catcher in the Rye, in his article, JD Salinger: A generation’s silent hero.  By comparing and contrasting Catcher with another beloved, American story of disaffected youth, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, he illuminates strengths and weaknesses of the book.

"Both books have enormous charm and a fine sense of period. But Huck acts out a tormenting moral problem, a conflict between what society has taught him (slaves are the private property of their owner) and what he comes to believe (decency demands he help Jim go free). It's at once a personal dilemma and the gravest ethical issue of 19th-century American life. Holden Caulfield, on the other hand, worries about personal authenticity and expresses his dislike of the "phonies" he runs into. They are both troubled young fellows, but the troubles of Huck are universal, the troubles of Holden limited to a certain kind of American adolescent."
Conspiracy theories abound as to why Salinger fled the public eye so many years ago. And we’re about to see a torrent of them in the media.

In his Globe and Mail remembrance, Salinger gave us the gospel of Holden, author Andrew Pyper (Lost Girls, The Wildfire Circle, The Killing Season) calls Catcher’s protagonist Holden Caulfield “America’s Hamlet”.   And in Salinger’s final battle, writer Chris Wilson admits he loves Salinger “far too much to write about him with any perspective.”

In a clever angle on the story every journalist alive is weighing in on, Wilson decides to use “Seymour: An Introduction”, one of Salinger’s own stories, to eulogize his beloved author. But Wilson then admits to finding Salinger’s last story barely readable and finds much meaning in the experience. Wilson finds confirmation in his reaction in Steven Marcus’s 1963 New York Review of Books summary of the tale.

“Written in a prose so self-consciously arch and cloying as to be almost impenetrable, it circles and loops about itself and gets nowhere. Obsessed with the character and the suicide of Seymour, Salinger seems on the one hand in danger of being swallowed up by the myth he has created.”

One can almost see Wilson nodding sagely as he uncovered this loaded quote. He goes on to summarize Salinger’s final story starring Seymour Glass, Hapworth 16, 1924.
“As any devoted Salinger sleuth has discovered in the catacombs of some university library, he published a final story two years later in The New Yorker titled Hapworth 16, 1924, which takes the form of a letter from a seven-year-old Seymour Glass to his parents from summer camp. The story is grating, ponderous, and, I find, unreadable; I’ve never made it through more than 5,000 of the 30,000 words.

If we needed any more evidence that Buddy — or Salinger — was on the brink with Seymour, then Hapworth is it. If he has been writing for the past 40 years, I fear it was more of the same.”
A bit overwrought perhaps?

First of all, it takes little, if any sleuthing to know when Salinger’s last story was published. We are in the era of Google after all.

Secondly Wilson’s declaration of how unreadable the final story is nicely points out how divisive Salinger was and will continue to be. If Wilson, who so boldly professed himself madly in love with Salinger in the opening paragraph of his column, can’t get through the final stories, then they must ponderous indeed, right?

People love Salinger.

They also love to hate him.

Face it, judging JDS has been a nice, cottage industry for the literary-inclined for many, many years. And like the retort of a starter’s pistol, Salinger’s death has kicked that into overdrive. The Literati are eager to draw their personal line in the sand and pile on the praise or just pile on.

The National Post start the negative coverage with Mark Medley’s Not everyone loved J.D. Salinger, which reveals that novelist Bret Eaton Ellis (Less Than Zero, Rules of Attraction, American Psycho and Lunar Park) twittered, “Yeah!! Thank God he's finally dead. I've been waiting for this day for-f--king-ever. Party tonight!!!" Not really surprising reaction I suppose, given Ellis’ delight in literary shock value.

Jay McInerney (Story of My Life, Brightness Falls, The Good Life) is quoted as telling ABC News that he doubts Salinger has written anything of value in his time out of the public eye.
"I think there's probably a lot in there, but I'm not sure if it's necessarily what we hope it is," McInerney told the network on Thursday when asked about the contents of Salinger's legendary safe, where it's alleged he's kept his unpublished work. "Hapworth was not a traditional or terribly satisfying work of fiction. It was an insane epistolary monologue, virtually shapeless and formless. I have a feeling that his later work is in that vein."
I don’t blame McInerney for feeling less than kind to Salinger. His novel Bright Lights, Big City was compared to Catcher in the Rye when it came out, and not always favorably.

Truth is, a simple search of JD Salinger right now will likely uncover an outpouring of “What Salinger/Catcher in the Rye meant to me” postings on blogs, in articles and online forums. And beyond that you will find all sorts of curmudgeons out to diss the author.

Me?   I think the people are overreacting on both sides.

Fans and foes alike pore their own desires, dreams and angst into a vacuum and create Salinger in the image they desire. Their dismissal of his hackery or elevation of his status to near Godhood are often far greater barometers of their own emotional state and personal demons than of his.

To assume Salinger was unable to grow as a writer over the course of forty or more years and was stuck in his 1965 writing style and mode is utter lunacy.

But neither is it sensible to assume that every piece of personal prose tucked away in his famous vault and filing cabinets is likely to be golden.

But let's face it… the published stories that are out in the world are proof enough that the man had prodigous writing talent. And if stepping away from the pressure of writing allowed him more creative freedom I can’t magine he wouldn’t improve as he went along. He also seems critical enough of his own work that I suspect -- especially over the course of forty-plus years -- he made a pretty fair editor for himself.  And let's face it, people wouldn't be this obsessed if they weren't affected by his work.  Such was Salinger's gift of intimacy in his writing that everyone felt they knew him through his writing.  Do a few literary misteps mitigate that talent?

My favourite remembrance of Salinger so far comes from Quebec’s Eve Shea, who wrote Goodbye, Uncle Jerry for Saturday’s Globe and Mail. It focuses not on his writing (which is all most of us have to judge him), but rather on her personal relationship with the man himself. Eve writes of being introduced to Salinger as a girl of thirteen by hr older sister and becoming fast friends and sometime pen pals.
“Jerry was reluctant to talk about his work but did tell us that he wrote every day, from early morning until lunch, and he showed us where he wrote, in a room overlooking his wooded property. We saw the typewriter that he worked on, the one that made the holes for periods in the letters that he sent me, as well as the two closet-sized fireproof safes that stored his writing. When I asked, “How is the writing going?” he said, “Oh, Evie! You don't ever ask a writer how the writing is going.”

“…Peter asked if he ever re-read his books. He told us that occasionally he pulled them off the shelf to make sure that everyone was all right.”
I think Salinger’s response to Eve asking if her boyfriend’s writer brother could correspond with him may sum up Salinger quite. While giving her an unequivocal ‘No’, Salinger is at once extremely polite, direct and self-effacing.
“When I wrote asking if it would be all right if Peter's brother Joe wrote to him, knowing what his answer was likely to be, he wrote back, “I'll pass up, if you don't mind, any personal exchanges with the young writer you mentioned. No loss for him. I can't think of anything good that ever comes of serious writers – that is, writers not just out for the usual big splash – knowing each other personally, and almost invariably harm, subtle or otherwise, comes of it. If this young guy matters to you, and if you sense that he wants to do some real work, on his own terms, not necessarily or even likely the world's, tell him to stay clear of everybody in the profession or on the fringes of it. My sentiments, anyway. Not, I'm aware, not altogether widely approved or thought salutary.”
Eve’s personal portrait of her “Uncle Jerry” reveals an intensely shy, polite man who loved to write and enjoyed his privacy.

No conspiracies.

Just a man living a quiet life and a fiercely independent artist who needed the smallest audience of all… himself.

Of course, the flip side to this placid view can be found in a post by journalista and author Jeet Heer, who has some interesting thoughts on Salinger by way of his daughter Margaret's memoirs.  Read Salinger & family at Heer's Sanseverything blog.

Live the adventure.


Sunday, January 17, 2010

Jay Leno or Conan O'Brien? How about the Tonight Show with Craig Ferguson?

With NBC late-night airing its dirty laundry for the past week, everyone has been piling on Jay Leno and Carson Daly, as my last post, Tonight Show - Leno or Conan?, shows. Oddly, both shows have been doing fine for NBC, raking in cash even at reduced ratings due to their relative cheapness.

Carson Daly's influence with younger viewers is underrated and despite airing ninety minutes later, he often gets ratings close to the suddenly-relevant-again Jimmy Kimmel. The Leno Show's ratings were more than high enough to keep it profitable simply because it cost a fraction of five ten p.m. dramas.

But ultimately, this new war for late-night's most coveted time slot has revealed cracks in the talk show format itself. I confess, I can comfortably watch Letterman, especially when he's pissed off about something and Conan is a writer's comic, with a terrific appreciation of what has gone before and a delightful sense of the surreal. But they're still doing the same thing over and over.

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are not headlining talk shows per se, they're lampooning the news and serving a healthy dose of satire every weeknight.

The Boston Globe describes hilariously, vicious comic Chelsea Handler's show on E! as turning "celebrity-watching into a blood sport for laughs." I find Chelsea absolutey hilarious. But she's so relentless and (let's face it) mean spirited I only catch her once or twice a month.

So who's left?

Why, my one, late-night, talk show, true love, standing proud and true - The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson.

Night after night Ferguson takes giddy delight in his show and that energy is contagious. The difference is evident even in terms of his monologue, a much more personalized experience than those delivered by his peers. Ferguson treats the viewers and his studio audience like his mates, inviting us all to join in the fun in a playful, conspiratorial tone. Ferguson doesn't hit his mark the way others hosts do, choosing instead to resist the formality of a stationary delivery.

The camera is raised several inches above eye level, looking down on Craig with, I think, a wide angle lens so we see the set behind him. This allows Ferguson to look up at the camera and the audience and keep his notes out of site below. But it also allows him to move around in the frame, sometimes backing away and sometimes leaning right into the lens to mug or share some some tid-bit, just between himself and several million of his dearest friends.

Craig's delight in comedy is infectious and he's tremendously skilled at keeping you on your toes. He can zoom from serious to silly in a snap and keep you riveted. Recently, the Philidelphia Weekly's Cup O' Joel blog summed up Craig better than I ever could in this post - Screw Jay Leno and meh to Conan O'Brien: watch Craig Ferguson instead.

The honesty in Ferguson's meandering, storytelling comic style draws you in. And how many talk show hosts would choose to do as candid a monologue as Ferguson's President's Day appeal from one comic to his audience and one alcoholic to any alcoholic who may be watching? Now, how many comics could do it and still score real, deserved laughs?


But hey, don't take my word for it. South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu agrees, Craig Ferguson is crazy. No fooling.

I rest my case and will turn over the final comments to Mr. Ferguson himself.

In this monologue from last week Craig puts this late night flap into perspective.

Live the adventure.

Tonight Show - Leno or Conan?

Conan and Leno’s battle for late-night is waking up ratings and putting me to sleep

NBC’ s embarrassingly public mishandling of its late night line-up may be the best thing to happen to late night talk shows across the board in years. Without exception, viewers have been treated to a higher level of engagement and energy from the various hosts and seeming interactivity. For the first time in a long while, the opening monologues seem to actually old personal meaning for each of them.

Ratings are up as well, especially Conan's, as viewers tune in to see who will go the farthest in the battle of the gags and check out what may be Conan’s final week in the Tonight Show chair. Seeing hosts bite that hands that feed them (and the hand that takes the food away) is exactly the kind of real, live drama so-called “reality television” has been attempting to fake for years.

Death Knell for Late Night TV?

But for all the viewer excitement this oh-so public internal spat provides, it has also clarified how staid late-night network television has become. NBC won’t miss me if I stop watching, mostly because I stopped watching long ago with one exception (I’ll get to that) in favour of Comedy Central’s Daily Show and Colbert The Report. Due to their focus on current affairs and lampooning of the news show format, they feel more connected to my day to day experience. A rerun of Letterman, Leno or Conan is dated only by what movie or album their guests are pimping that week. For the most part the monologues and sketches over the years are pretty interchangeable.

So then it’s just a matter of what taste you like your comedy bits in, Leno’s comfortable, gentle humour (remember when he had an actual “angry” edge to his work? Me either. It was so very, very long ago.), Letterman’s curmudgeonly, axe-grinding mugging or Conan’s mix of sublime, reference-based humour and collegiate buffoonery. I can’t really lump Jimmy Fallon into this mix. While likable and somewhat funny, he’s not a comic and seems to lack the ability to adjust and riff when his bits fail. And the monologue jokes seem like cast-offs from his competitors writing rooms.

The Buffalo News’ Arts Editor Jeff Simon opined the loss of late night spontaneity in his Friday commentary, “Hilarity ensues on late night”. Simon points to Ricky Gervais’ Puckish appearance on the Tonight Show last week as an example of one comic with nothing to lose making fun of the situation opposite another comic with a great deal to lose.

That’s when “Golden Globe” plugger Gervais came out to demonstrate to O’Brien the glorious comic art of laughing it up and partying down. “What are you going to do?” he asked O’-Brien. “I’m really worried about you. I’m not being funny [psst. Yes he was]. You’ve got no discernible skills . . . You couldn’t do manual work. You’ve never lifted anything in your life.”
Maybe he could be a lifeguard, offered O’Brien, trying to play along. Said Gervais, “Your skin would dazzle ships. You’re the whitest man I’ve ever seen.” When he takes all his clothes off, he’s probably “translucent,” said Gervais.
His message to O’Brien was to “go mental” on the show and put his moribund act aside during the interview. But O’Brien just couldn’t do it. Gervais’ hilarity clearly cut too close to the bone. The certifiable grown-up and well-mannered comedy patrician in him took over.

Simon’s point that Conan “going wild” and bucking expectations the way Gervais likes to do misses the mark somewhat. Gervais’ preferred form of confrontational humour can be quite grating when overused and Conan has to appeal to a broad range of viewers.

But as the last late-night host to inject anything remotely fresh into the format, Conan did seem to be relying on comfortable tricks to hedge his bets. Perhaps Conan’s respect for “the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting” (as he refers to the Tonight Show in Conan’s statement to the people of earth) made him hesitant to embrace the more absurd aspects of his humour.

Conan: Heir to a proud Tonight Show history

Truthfully, of all the Tonight Show wannabes (Leno, Conan, Letterman and once upon a time, Joan Rivers), Conan’s writing background and love of absurdity had the most potential to revamp the show and bring something unique to the format (Though some would argue the point, as this blog post insisting former Tonight Show hosts are spinning in their graves! It would appear Conan’s appeal lies upon definite generational lines).

Steve Allen and Ernie Kovacs were arguably the last pair to bring actual innovation to the Tonight Show. Jack Parr brought the show to a new level based on his personality, wit and authenticity. Johnny Carson took that recipe and turned the show into a cultural institution over his unprecedented thirty-year stint.

But Jeff Simon isn’t the only one pointing out the lack of innovation in late night. Articles like “Late-night talk shows aren’t worth the fight” by Boston Globe writer Matthew Gilbert are adding their voice to the lament.
In the past decade, late-night network TV seems to have been running on automatic pilot, with requisite and uneven stand-up monologues, vapid promotional interviews, and predictably kooky shorts. There are flashes of life here and there, of course, many of them from Ferguson and his outrageous bluntness. But after strikingly original developments by Letterman and O’Brien in the 1980-’90s, the format has just settled into being a kind of merry-go-round of variety- and talk-show conventions while the house bands play on. Even Letterman’s and O’Brien’s current shows are short on the post-bedtime anything-goes vibe that late night cries out for.
This inertia is part of the reason the “Leno Experiment’’ failed so miserably. What we saw when Jay Leno essentially relocated his 11:35 p.m. “Tonight Show’’ to 10 p.m. was the ugly truth about late night. In the brighter light of prime time, we could see how weak and unimaginative so much of the networks’ post-news TV - and so much of Leno’s work in particular - has become.
Leno and Conan – Even the winner will lose

I feel for Leno and Conan. This is a situation not of their own making. Leno was actually gracious when making his move to 10 pm, making room for Conan to take over his Tonight Show chair with little fuss and loads of positivity. And I doubt it was his idea to cancel his new show and move back. But he’s a comic and needs a gig. And if NBC is offering him the premiere late-night again, why shouldn’t he take it?

Jerry Seinfeld (who is coming across as more and more smug with every passing year) weighed in this week.

"It was the right idea at the wrong time," Seinfeld said. "…I'm proud that NBC had the guts to try something."
Asked what he would do if he was Conan O'Brien and NBC had seemingly broken its promise to let him become the network's premium late-night host, Seinfeld suggested he wouldn't complain.
"What did the network do to him?" Seinfeld asked. "I don't think anyone's preventing people from watching Conan. Once they give you the cameras, it's on you. I can't blame NBC for having to move things around. I hope Conan stays, I think he's terrific. But there's no rules in show business, there's no refs."
You have to give Leno props. After NBC voted for Conan five years ago by promising him Leno’s chair, despite the older comic’s strong ratings, Leno took it on his robust chin and jumped at the chance for the prime time challenge they offered him as compensation. After seeing how long they gave that experiment a chance to work, Conan was disinclined to take part in another experiment so obviously designed to move him out of the way.

But the failure of Leno’s show must, at least partially, still rest on his shoulders. The cosmetic changes to Leno’s show for its move to an earlier time slot showed little inspiration and Leno himself displayed almost no comedic invention. Even his off-the-cuff remarks felt dated and scripted. He felt comfortable and entitled and not surprisingly hemorrhaged viewers to more intriguing late evening offerings of the other nets.

NBC: "We bet on the wrong guy"

Still, its clear NBC isn’t handling this very well. One gets the impression all this is a spastic panic response rather than real consideration for the various options. When a former NBC exec and friend of Jeff Zucker, Dick Ebersol calls out Conan in an incendiary interview with New York Times writer Bill Carter, things got heated quickly.

Referring to the pointed jokes made this week by Mr. O’Brien and David Letterman of CBS, Mr. Ebersol said it was “chicken-hearted and gutless to blame a guy you couldn’t beat in the ratings.” Mr. Ebersol said Mr. Leno had not pushed for any of the changes, not the original decision to guarantee Mr. O’Brien the show five years in advance, nor the plan to put Mr. Leno in prime time.
“Jeff and I are big boys,” Mr. Ebersol said, referring to Mr. Zucker. “When we do something big in the public forum and it doesn’t succeed, we know we’ll be the butt of criticism. But you don’t personally attack someone who hasn’t done anything.” In this case, he added, “we bet on the wrong guy.”
Conan: Doing what a comedian does best

Ebersol is missing the point here. While his insistence that numbers did Conan in is valid, Conan targeting Leno in his monologue kind of makes sense. Remember Conan is a comedian. What he does by definition is make fun of whatever is stuck in his craw today. You follow? Conan is actually doing his job!

As a comic and host it’s his duty to make the funny about whatever will provide him with the most comedic points at that point in time. Because of this mess, his monologue is sharper and funnier than it’s been all season and his ratings are up! He’s actually doing his job better this week than the last three months!

Now Conan could can make fun of the NBC executive directly but the public face of the argument is Leno. His audience doesn’t know who the hell Jeff Zucker is. So he has to go for the targets they will recognize, NBC and Leno. What Ebersol is forgetting that this crap is comedy gold.

NBC’s problems are bigger than Leno and Conan

David Letterman opined in a monologue last week, “Don’t kid yourself. It’s all about the money.” That’s true. NBC is in trouble. A study has just been released that reveals NBC affiliates have lost $22 million in advertising revenue for their local normally lucrative newscast over the fourth quarter thanks to the Leno Show debacle. George Poague, copy editor of the Clarksville and Fort Campbell Leaf Chronicle assures us that this is a sign that “Network TV is on its last legs” and many of his points are valid.

NBC doesn’t have time to let Conan grow his numbers. They can only hope that reinserting Leno into the 11:30 will bring the numbers close to what he was pulling before the change and that somehow adds some juice to Jimmy Fallon’s unimpressive ratings. I doubt that will happen, while some may find a return to his former slot a vindication for Leno, many more will consider him damaged goods or worse, a sore winner.

It’s too bad NBC hasn’t offered Conan an attractive alternative to the unwanted later-night spot. Perhaps guaranteeing his production a development deal to fill those suddenly empty time slots with shows he’s developed, opening a lucrative door and fresh creative outlet and allowing him to reinvent himself while he looks for a home for his talk show. But NBC wasn’t that creative, they hit the panic button without a suitable plan so Conan will likely take the money and run.

Leno takes it on the chin

So, after moving his entire crew from New York to LA, NBC and Leno look like bullies (Update: according to Deadline Hollywood, it looks like Conan is insisting NBC take care of staff who pulled up New York stakes and moved to LA) and Conan looks like a victim. Which brings to mind a really interesting thing about this whole debacle -- how many comics have landed squarely on Conan’s side. It seems like Leno is not as popular among his peers as was once thought. Nathan Rabin's Wall Street Journal Essay, Why Some Comics Aren't Laughing At Jay Leno, tries to answer why comics seemed to be lined to take potshots at him.

Take the recent guest appearance by Jimmy Kimmel on Leno's show the night after his notorious Leno impression.

Though I find it hard to believe that Leno didn’t invite Jimmy Kimmel’s hits on their 10 at 10 exchange this week (the questions were such blatant set-ups), he obviously didn’t come off as well from the bit as he’d hoped. Instead of commiserating with Leno, Kimmel put much of the blame squarely on his shoulders and practically dared Leno to come out swinging (comedically speaking).

But Leno never rose to the bait. If he had perhaps I would have been more interested more of what he has to offer in general. But he stayed out of the thick of it and continued his bland ways. And why not? He’s getting what he wanted all along and, rightfully, what he earned. Sadly, I think part of his appeal is what my wife and I refer to as the “Give Up” factor. Leaving the TV channel on Leno is our official announcement that there its nothing else viewable that night and at least we’ll have some friendly company while we read or do the dishes.

That good old “Give Up” appeal allows Leno to pick up cast-offs from a large range of demographics. Enough to keep his 11:35 ratings solid put him in the chair for years to come.

Live the adventure.

Monday, November 16, 2009

By Hook or By Crook - The Prisoner's roots in Henrik Ibsen and the tyranny of blogging

"Where am I?"
"In the Village."
"What do you want?"
"Whose side are you on?"
"That would be telling."
"We want information... Information... Information..."

"You won't get it."

"By hook or by crook, we will."

"Who are you?"
"The new number Two."
"Who is Number One?"
"You are Number Six."
"I am not a number. I am a free man!"
(Mocking laughter)

-Weekly opening of "the Prisoner"

AMC’s six-hour miniseries remake of the Prisoner begins tonight starring Jim Caviezel (Frequency, The Count of Monte Cristo) and Ian McKellen, (Richard III, Gods and Monsters, The Scarlet Pimpernel); an ocurrence which provides me with a unique opportunity to demonstrate one of the reasons I have don’t blog as regularly as I should.

Several factors have conspired to keep me from my online duties. A great challenge is the constant juggling of television scripts in my day job. As a modern, freelance writer working mainly in animation, I’m not paying rent if I’m not writing on several shows at once. You’d be surprised how much energy and brain power it sucks out of your creative well to switch completely gears every few hours. Add to that the fact that I often work into the night when I desperately want to spend time with my new wife. The last thing I usually want to do is take more time away from her to post a blog. So that lowers the online priority for me.

And November is more or less a bust for posting because this year because, as I did last year, I am attempting to spit out a novel in celebration of National Novel Writing Month. Last year I reached the word count but never ended the story, realizing I had very specific character and theme questions to solve first. This year, I am determined to avoid that but so far other story issues are conspiring to screw me up again.

The second challenge is that I actually write three blogs (with contributions ot a fourth coming soon): Rebel Alert, Comicanuck and Stark Raving Adventure. I began to post humorous Star Wars items and comics for a fake Star Wars online newspaper I created to go along with a friend’s fan film. (The film is Death Star Repairmen and the newspaper is Empire’s paper of record, The Imperial News – “All the news that’s fit to censor”.) The blog soon became a vehicle to talk about all kinds of things from a sci-fi bent. So I branched out to better cover my interests and maintain each blog’s identity.

The math on this is pretty simple. Even if I do manage a post a week, it goes to one site or the other. My personal blog on life, Stark Raving Adventure and writing often gets the short end of the stick after a comic or sci-fi. But the biggest challenge for me is my inability to write a short blog post.

I have some success on this front with recent Rebel Alert posts but in general my posts tend to be much more thorough than most. I ‘m not big on just linking to an item posted somewhere. I want my blogs to be more than just a link fest. Other sites dedicated to that do it far better than I ever could. When I discover an intriguing story I usually want to more about what I’ve read or seen. I want to uncover the “story behind the story”. Inevitably I discover intriguing connections and fun questions that other sites haven’t. That is no knock on them. The connections I find are often quite idiosyncractic to my own experience and sense of humour. But it takes me a while for my brain to work through all this and then write a post that takes you on the same journey.

Case in point… I have been meaning to write about the Prisoner for some time but the ideas I wanted to explore are better suited for an MBA thesis than a blog. The sheer magnitude of what I wanted to write about kept me away.

Let me run you through it and watch how the simple summary I planned to give you can bloom into a full essay.

For those of you who don’t know, American born Irish actor Patrick McGoohan was up and coming actor in the late 1950’s, eventually being named Best TV actor of the year in Britain. He rose to prominence starring as secret agent John Drake in the UK’s Danger Man series (titled Secret Agent in the US) for four seasons before growing bored with the role. Setting up his own production company, McGoohan and mystery novelist and script editor George Markstein pitched The Prisoner, about an important government figure with a sensitive post who quits his job, only to wake up the next morning in the mysterious Village: a fanciful Big Brothereque resort cut off from the world where people who know too much are under psychologically and physically manipulated to break down their sense of identity.

Markstein, who devised the setting, background and wrote “Arrival”, the pilot for the series, maintains the character is John Drake and the series is a literal and allegorical sequel to Danger Man. McGoohan denied this all the way to his death, insisting the character of Number 6 was a scientist and had no relation to his previous character. Markstein is glimpsed in the opening credits as the man McGoohan hands in his resignation to.

The series ran with its bizarre concept, taking it to heights of surrealism and allegory not previously seen on television before. McGoohan served as the series star, director, producer and taking over an increasingly large portion of the scripting duties. Markstein clashed with McGoohan over the direction the series was taking and eventually left the series around episode thirteen or so. The remaining episodes became even more wild and hallucinogenic. In fact, the psychedelic finale caused such a stir in England and continues to baffle and fascinate audiences to this day.

And the legend grew.

Henrik Ibsen is tired of explaining his plays to you.

To me, the Prisoner series, and the behind the scenes circumstances of the production, is pure Ibsen. (some Peer Gynt and a whole lot of Brand and therefore, pure Kierkegaard, but I’ll get to that.) McGoohan himself once played Brand before The Prisoner started, likely to great effect with his commanding presence, precise diction and booming voice. The play follows the life of a priest dedicated to dong the right thing no matter what the consequences are. His Old Testament view of God allows no compromise but the cost to him is great. He loses his wife and ministers to a village “flock” that increasingly fail at the moral tests Brand (and life) confronts them with. Brand’s goal is to save the world and the soul’s of man but his inability to compromise and accept human weakness eventually leave him alone with his moral fortitude.

In the end, Brand suffers from the harsh judgment he subjected others to when he is stoned by his flock, banished to the glacier where he grew up and buried in an avalanche. Brand’s dying words express profound doubt. “Does not salvation consider the will of man?” It is open to interpretation whether or not Brand is abandoned by God with the play’s final words, uttered by an unseen voice, “He is the God of love.” Does that mean he left no room for love in his life or that God accepts him?

Apparently, we modern readers tend to take an unsympathetic view of Brand’s harsh moral code, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, although Rand’s philosophy eschews religion and good works and places mankind as it’s own God, with individual self-interest and achievement as the noblest of activities.

Ibsen’s Peer Gynt stars a man-child who spends his entire life avoiding accepting any kind of responsibility for his actions and yet, somehow comes through unscathed, with others bearing the damage of his choices. Finally, after a lifetime of adopting and abandoning many roles, old man Peer discovers his soul is forfeit because he has never been “himself”. Peer is defenseless, having no idea who he really is and finding no one he knows can vouch for him. He is finally granted a reprieve thanks only to the pure love of his long abandoned sweetheart, Solveig (who really needs to get more).

The key to the philosophy of Peer Gynt can be found in Act Two. While in the Mountain Hall of the Troll King, the monarch asks Peer Gynt, “What is the difference between troll and man?” When Peer Gynt is understandably at a loss for an answer one is provided by The Old Man of the Mountain, "Out there, where sky shines, humans say: To thyself be true. In here, trolls say: Be true to yourself-ish.” Peer adopts his own version of the troll motto from then on, declaring to all that he is himself, whatever that is. Peer spends the rest of his days avoiding facing himself or facing truth in general. You might say, Peer Gynt was Ibsen’s version of the Nick Hornby book, About A Boy, with Will (played by Hugh Grant in the film) as a modern Peer.

Peer Gynt and Brand are flip sides of the same question for Ibsen. Both seem to be based on Soren Kierkegaard’s book, Fear and Trembling, a lengthy consideration of the bible story of Isaac, who was asked to sacrifice of his beloved son in Genesis. Kierkegaard interprets the tale, wrestling with the nature of faith, God, morality and faith’s relationship with ethics and morality. To do this Kierkegaard introduces us to the Knight of Faith and the Knight of Infinite Resignation.

The Knight of Faith, in this case Abraham, gives up everything that is important to him in the world save his faith in of, sure that he will regain everything through divine possibility. When God asks him to sacrifice his son, Abraham does so, secure in the knowledge that somehow God will someone keep he and his son together. He exists in paradox. Likewise, Peer Gynt easily gives up on what’s important in this world, assuming he will gain it all back through divine providence or simply due to the “strength of the absurd.”

The Knight of Infinite Resignation gives up everything in the hopes of regaining it in the next life, but spends their life suffering the pain of their loss. Just as Brand is governed by his faith, he also suffers through it and is punished for it. McGoohan’s Number 6 is totally Brand. Single-minded and indomitable. Heidi MacDonald sums it quite nicely over at The Beat.

McGoohan radiated angry determination to escape, fierce intelligence, and sharp efficiency when physical action was required. He was sexy but remote - unlike some other super spies, Number Six didn't jump into bed with every hot lady he met. Number Six was not a person for whom giving in or internal struggle was natural - no wonder he broke ever Number Two who showed up. In the role, McGoohan was dead fucking cool. His acting was knife sharp. No matter what he did later, McGoohan was dead fucking cool. His acting was knife sharp. No matter what he did later - from ICE STATION ZEBRA to several turns as Det. Columbo's most cunning foe - you could never stop watching Mcgoohan, because he wasnt' just so good he was scary; he WAS scary. He was as enigmatic as he was charismatic.

Exactly! And after years of my Brand/Peer Gynt theory percolating in my head, imagine my surprise to discover that my long-held belief was delightfully accurate! In an interview at www.the-prisoner-6 , George Markstein confirms the Brand influence on the development of the Prisoner.

…my feeling is that McGoohan wasn't really very keen on doing any other series. What he really wanted to do I think was to play Brand. He'd had an enormous success some years previously on the stage with Ibsen's 'Brand' and Brand personifies everything I think McGoohan would like to be: God! He was very good as God, so he wanted to play Brand ... again. He was very keen to set up 'Brand' as a film and I think that was really what he wanted to do. What a lot of the people in the studio wanted was to keep their jobs! They hoped he'd go on doing a series and so I sat down at the typewriter one day - you know, any port in a storm - and typed a couple of pages. They were about a secret agent - and after all Drake had been a secret agent - who suddenly quits without any apparent reason, as McGoohan had quit without any apparent reason, and who is put away!

McGoohan as Brand at the Lyric Theatre,
Hammersmith in the late 1950's.

McGoohan also carried the Brand image off-screen, overdosing on multi-hyphenates as he micromanaged production of the Prisoner. At this point, Markstein hit the eject button and bailed on the show when:
“…egomania took over! You know, when McGoohan was everything! When McGoohan was writing, was conceiving, was directing ... and didn't know where he was going. My presence was superfluous - and we've seen the result after my departure… the non-conclusion. I think it was an absurd pantomime. You tell me what it means. I think it was a bit of gross self-indulgence by someone who was fed up with the whole thing and wanted to get out of it and wanted to go out in a blaze of ... something or other… I was surprised because I thought something much better would emerge. After all, when one has conceived something one wants it to die a reasonable death, not some horrific joke!

Like Brand, Markstein feels McGoohan was a Prisoner of his creation.
I think that in many ways THE PRISONER is a tragedy ... because McGoohan became a prisoner of the series and it's never nice to see that happen to a human being, the combination of ambition, frustration, wanting to be writer, director, actor - you name it. It was sad, it was very sad I think. It did something to him that wasn't very good and it was reflected in the series and that's why the series ended like that and that's why people have said "I don't understand the end". Of course they don't understand the end, because there is no end ... I don't think even McGoohan understood the end, or if he does, well, perhaps he does, but that is the biggest tragedy of THE PRISONER that Patrick McGoohan became a Prisoner himself.

Over at Glenn Kenny’s Some Came Running blog, we find a remembrance of McGoohan’s other genre contributions, most notably the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh and his intense work in David Cronenberg’s Scanners. Kenny quotes the book Cronenberg on Cronenberg, wherein the director recalls with discomfort the disorganized first shooting day and how it foreshadowed a difficult shot.

"It kept on being that difficult. Patrick McGoohan was part of the reason. He's a brilliant actor; the voice, the charisma, the presence, the face. Phenomenal. And he was aging so well; he looked so great in that beard. But he was so angry. His self-hatred came out as anger against everybody and everything. He said to me, 'If I didn't drink I'd be afraid I'd kill someone.' He looks at you that way and you just say, 'Keep drinking.' It's all self-destructive, because it's all self-hating. That's my theory. He was also terrified. The second before we went to shoot he said, 'I'm scared.' I wasn't shocked; Olivier said that he was terrified each time he had to go on stage. With Patrick, though, it was just so raw and so scary—full of anger and potent. But he was sensing the disorganization; the script wasn't there, so he was right to worry about it. He didn't know me. He didn't know whether I could bring it off or not. We parted from the film not on very good terms ultimately."

In the finale of the original series, Number 6 at last confronts Number 1, yanking off a false face to reveal his own countenance staring back at himself. Apparently McGoohan told close friends this revelation was meant to imply that Number 6, who pictured himself as the ultimate rebel, had imprisoned himself by thinking like a prisoner, thereby always limiting his options. That gives us a reasonable and very clever explanation for the answer Number 6 receives in every episode to the question, “Who is number 1?” The response is always, “You are Number 6.” But could it also he heard as, “You are, Number 6”? This fits into Markstein’s original approach to the series. Number 6’s has faith in his own self-image and ultimately, that faith is the one thing that defeats him.

So where does Peer Gynt fit into the Prisoner? Well, the other residents of the Village appear to be much like Peer; changeable as the wind and whims of the various Number 2’s and generally getting by quite well. That attitude alone makes them anathema to Number 6 and more dangerous to his mindset than any plan of Number 2’s.

But however much Number 6’s defiance and self-image make him an exemplary Brand, he is also very much Peer Gynt himself. He readily accepts and even embraces the routine of the Village and his constant struggle for identity. Intentionally or not, he seems go along with each new attempt to break his will with increasingly practised ease, always on the lookout for a chance to escape –to find something better in life. The Village has given Number 6’s life meaning his previous life lacked, as evidenced by his defiant resignation featured every week in the opening credits. Number 6 accepts that he is a Prisoner and redefines himself in those terms. Like Peer Gynt McGoohan declares himself to be a free man yet why would a free men constantly need to escape? “I am myself, whatever that is.”


You can see why it's taken some time to tackle this post. It’s a lot to consider even though I’m trying to keep things simple (More for my own poor, overloaded brain’s sake than your sprightly minds, gentle readers). I avoided the temptation to go into specific examples from the series and compare dialogue and scenes to passages from Fear and Trembling and Ibsen. But it still took ths long to reach the page.
Sigh... Weeks between posts. I try to make them worth the wait.

AMC has the original Prisoner episodes available for free viewing at their remake's website. Something I definitely plan to take advantage of.

Click over to Youtube for a fascinating four-part interview with Mcgoohan several years after the Prisoner phenomenon.

Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here. And Part 4 is here.

Next time: Let’s talk about the new AMC version and how it stacks up to the original and for those who’ve never the sixties series) compared to their other exemplary series, Mad Men and Breaking Bad.

Be seeing you.

Live the adventure.