I Happen to Like New York

In the past week, I have taken two trips for work: The first trip was to rural southwest Kansas, which involved hours of driving through country where the only views were desolate plains and herds of cattle.

The second trip was to New York City — my first trip ever to the city — and I definitely wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

Since I’ve traveled quite a bit in my life, it’s hard for some people to believe that it took me so long to get to New York. The truth is, I just never really had a compelling reason to go and it wasn’t enough of a priority to take a vacation there.

I also have a bit of an internal conflict over the city.

As a lifelong Chicagoan, our status as the Second City is both a badge of honor and a point of contention. We’re not as prideful as New Yorkers, so we’re fine with being #2, but that’s only because we secretly know that we’re better than them. I’ve often heard New York described as a bigger, dirtier, less-friendly Chicago. Why would I want to spend time there?

As a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, I will never forgive the Miracle Mets for 1969 and the only recently avenged heartache they caused every older Cub fan in my life. Also, the Yankees. That’s all I have to say about that.

On the other hand, as a movie buff and connaisseur of pop culture, I have to admit that New York City has an undeniable mystique about it. A town that has inspired or been the setting for so many great TV shows, movies and songs can’t be all bad. The New York City-themed montages in Elf alone are enough to make me curious.

Now that I’ve spent my first day in New York, I have to begrudgingly admit that — while nothing would ever get me to say that it’s better than Chicago — it’s a really awesome city. I get the hype now.

As my plane descended over the city, I felt myself getting chills as I first saw the Statue of Liberty — even though it looked incredibly tiny from the plane window. With great-grandparents who immigrated to the United States via Ellis Island in the early 20th century, I couldn’t help but think about the experience of them and everyone else welcomed to this country by Lady Liberty. It feels cliche just writing that sentence, but it’s honestly how I felt.

I was a bit taken aback by the enormity of the city from the air, and once again after I landed and Uber’d through it. The complex geography of Manhattan Island and all the waterways and bridges is somewhat astounding from a civil engineering perspective. I knew that NYC was bigger than Chicago, but I didn’t realize just how much bigger until I was looking at it from above.

As a member of the 9/11 generation — I was about to start college in 2001 — seeing the city’s skyline and all the surrounding buildings instantly transported me back to that horrific day. That was the first time in my life that I really paid any close attention to New York outside of sports or pop culture references. I’m staying in a hotel mere blocks from where the World Trade Center stood, so all the coverage of 9/11 and its aftermath that I consumed at the time and afterward has come flooding back to me, restoring the kinship or intimacy with the city that I (and many others) felt so keenly after 9/11.

As I walked around this evening, I found myself imagining what these streets, shops and buildings looked like on the day of the attack and thought about how many people’s lives were disrupted in the moment and ultimately changed forever. I’ve been watching The Looming Tower, too, so that probably has something to do with all of the sad post-9/11 reflections. As I looked at the beautiful new tower in the World Trade Center complex, I marveled at all the work that has gone into rejuvenating and rebuilding this part of the city. It’s really incredible.

On a more upbeat note, my first move once I got into the city was to meet up with a former Northwestern student whom I taught a few years ago and who now works in the NBC Page program. This meant that I got to engage with my other New York-centric obsession — late night TV.

On a private tour, I was able to see the studios where Jack Paar and Johnny Carson originated The Tonight Show and where Jimmy Fallon currently plies his trade. I also saw Seth Meyers’ stomping grounds, as well as the old studio where David Letterman and Conan O’Brien once roamed and Megyn Kelly now hosts a later hour of The Today Show.

Best of all, I was able to peek in on the set of Saturday Night Live, as they prepped for the evening’s dress rehearsal and live broadcast. Guest host and living SNL legend Bill Hader was rehearsing a sketch with cast member Cecily Strong, while crew members finished painting a set and others set up the scenery for the cold open. Later, I saw Hader blocking out his movements for the monologue and how he would shift into the first sketch.

As a fan of SNL from the first time I was allowed to watch the show, this was a bucket list level pilgrimage for me. Just like when I finally attended a taping of the Bozo Show in Chicago as a child, it was extraordinary to see how much smaller in scale everything is than the wide angle TV camera lens makes it appear. The iconic center stage where the guest hosts make their grand entrance and deliver their opening monologue looks more like a comedy club stage than a professional theater. The musical guest’s stage is similarly tiny. In person, everything about the SNL production seems more intimate than epic.

The tight geography of the studio makes it so that the audience has a decidedly bad view of most of the show’s proceedings. I kind of assumed that the sets were all moved to the front of the stage one-by-one for each sketch, but they are far too large and complex for that, so they stay put in a few designated stage areas. One of the stages — where the infamous Cowbell sketch was performed — is positioned in such a way that it is completely obscured from the studio audience. The performers literally have their back to the audience. Another of the stages is reserved for “messy” sketches that involve water or fake blood or anything else that requires extra preparation and cleanup. Peering into the studio, it was incredible to be reminded of just how many people’s jobs revolve around putting on a comedy show every week. All that hard work probably makes the sketches that bomb even more painful for the cast and crew.

I saw a few of the current cast members wandering through the halls and could just feel the history and electricity of the place, as the show was set to go on this evening. It was extra intriguing to watch the live broadcast tonight, as I had seen a lot of the sets and watched some of the preparations without knowing exactly what they were for or what would happen. All in all, it was a fantastic experience.

After my tour, I perused the NBC Studio Store and decided to just wander the area around 30 Rock a bit. I happened upon the ice rink from Elf, Radio City Music Hall, the Nintendo store, and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral — on Saint Patrick’s Day no less!

I’m excited for the opportunity to explore more of the city over the next two days and see a few of the more traditional tourist attractions. It’s only been a day, but I definitely heart New York a lot more than I thought I would!

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Childhood nostalgia live on stage with ‘Animaniacs in Concert’

I spent the past Saturday night watching two middle-aged men get onstage and do cartoon voices and sing songs for two hours.

Out of context, this might sound like a complete waste of time and money, but for me it ended up being one of the most rewarding evenings of entertainment I’ve experienced in a long time.

That’s because the men on the stage were both responsible — each in their own way — for providing me with hours and hours of joy throughout my childhood and also significantly shaping my sense of humor.

In a small theater with about 100 others, the minimalist stage was set with a pull-down movie screen and a keyboard with a bench. That was it. Two men emerged with headset microphones and proceeded to perform songs, tell stories and answer questions from the audience of adoring fans.

The man behind the keyboard was Randy Rogel, a writer and musician who evolved from crafting dramatic episodes of Batman: The Animated Series to penning the majority of the clever, catchy and side-splitting songs from the cartoon series Animaniacs. Joining him onstage was Rob Paulsen, a man whose vocal stylings reverberated through my TV set and etched their way into my psyche as Yakko Warner on Animaniacs and a host of other cartoon characters over the years.

In this relatively intimate setting, these men were able to immediately transport the audience back to those weekday afternoons watching the Warner Brothers and their sister Dot escape their water tower to create mayhem. Every time Rob Paulsen opened his mouth and Yakko’s voice came out, I was startled by the reemergence of the character before my eyes, er, ears. As a nerdy pre-teen watching the show in the 90s, I was completely enthralled. Paulsen’s Yakko stood out to me in particular as the model of quick-witted humor to which I aspired. I wanted so badly to be the smart aleck with a one-liner comeback for every situation, although I think the only real resemblance I had was the high-waisted pants.

As Randy Rogel told stories about the songs he wrote for the show, I thought back to the Animaniacs soundtrack cassette that my brothers and I played so frequently that I still know every orchestra hit and vocal inflection on every single one of the songs. Rogel and Paulsen also did an impressive live performance of “I’m Mad,” a song that was released as a short that played before the theatrical release of the 1994 animated film Thumbelina. My brothers and I, who had absolutely zero interest in Thumbelina, dutifully attended a showing just so we could see the Animaniacs short, but we got there too late and missed half of it! We sat through Thumbelina and waited for the next showing so we could catch the full four-minute song. That’s real devotion. I’m happy to report that more than 25 years later, Paulsen — who voices both Yakko and Dr. Scratch ‘n Sniff in the song — can still hit every note. And that’s even after a recent successful battle with stage III throat cancer! He’s a living legend.

As Paulsen and Rogel gleefully plied their musical craft onstage, I couldn’t help but look around at everyone else in the theater and see that the diverse group all had stupid smiles on their faces as they were equally transported back in time. In the front row, a guy a few years older than me had brought his three kids to see the show — the live action version of forcing your kids to watch DVDs of your childhood shows — but the kids were smiling as much as everyone else.

There is a timeless and innocent quality to Animaniacs, even though it was a subversive kids’ TV show that had tons of humor meant for adults supplementing the falling anvils that appealed to its youngest viewers. Although some of the references are decidedly dated (“while Bill Clinton plays the sax”), the absurdist humor, one-liners and general irreverence never gets old. So often when I revisit shows I loved in my youth, I get that warm and fuzzy sentimental feeling mixed with a realistic downer dose of “Why did I like this? It’s kind of terrible.” Not so with Animaniacs. I watched an episode when I got home from the event and laughed like it was 1994 again.

The show maintains its appeal because the humor was universal but not one size fits all. Even as you were enjoying the show on some level as a small child, you could grow into the ever deeper and funnier levels of the show’s humor as you matured. It was just plain clever.

The show spawned unforgettable characters and a host of catch phrases, but perhaps its greatest distinguishing feature was its original songs. The music and lyrics conceived by Randy Rogel are nothing short of genius. Aside from the most-remembered ditty in which Yakko recites the nations of the world (which Rogel revealed was the first song he wrote for the show as an audition for the chance to join the writing staff), there are dozens of songs that are brilliant in their comedic lyrical escapades. The songs are so good that they frequently stood on their own as segments of the show.

To this day, these songs continue to pop into my head at random times — and they’re always welcome.

It was wonderful to see that both Rogel and Paulsen are down-to-earth, decent human beings who love what they do and truly appreciate the support of the show’s fans. Someone asked Paulsen the inevitable question of “What’s the bluest thing you’ve ever said as one of your characters?” and Paulsen’s response surprised and impressed me. He basically said that he considers himself a steward of the characters he portrays and would never compromise their integrity for a cheap laugh or an extra buck. He told a story of recently being asked to sacrifice Yakko to the parodying wolves of Robot Chicken and turning them down, even though he was flattered by the offer. He said the characters mean too much to the fans — including a new generation of children — and he wouldn’t want someone to be disappointed by hearing something inappropriately bawdy coming out of Yakko’s mouth. That’s an incredibly refreshing sentiment in 2017.

It also gives me some reassurance that if the Animaniacs ever did make a comeback — Rogel and Paulsen could neither confirm nor deny any rumors, but they offered a glimmer of hope— the creators and talent involved would remain true to the original spirit of the show and not try to reinvent them or add an edge to get some press or ratings. (I’m looking at you, Muppets.)

If you are a fan of the show, I highly recommend that you be alert for an opportunity to see this show in one of its iterations. Paulsen said that sometimes it’s just the two of them with a piano and other times it has been staged with a full orchestra and the involvement of all three voice actors for Yakko, Wakko and Dot. I am incredibly grateful that I had the opportunity to witness a live reincarnation of one of the essential shows of my childhood.