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!

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.

Stephen Colbert’s Opening Night

As an amateur late night television historian and an avowed Stephen Colbert fan, I can’t let the premiere of Colbert’s late night tenure pass without comment. It’s only been one episode, but here are my unsolicited thoughts on the (over)hyped first episode of his new show.


A Cancer Patient’s Guide to Netflix

Although I grew up consuming a steady diet of Saturday morning (and weekday) cartoons and a lot of syndicated sitcoms, I settled into my young adult life considering myself someone who “doesn’t really watch TV.” When people asked what TV shows I liked to watch, I would say, “Cubs games.” Even that became less true as my fandom hibernated along with the team’s winning percentage over the last few seasons.

There were some exceptions though, thanks to the onset of Hulu and other online streaming services. A while back I binge-watched both “Lost” and “Arrested Development” over a year’s worth of lunch breaks at work. And my family would frequently rent seasons of favorite bygone TV shows from the library to leisurely watch on summer nights and weekends.

netflix copyBut for better or worse, chemotherapy has made television watching into one of my primary activities. While I still don’t watch very much live TV (Cubs games are making a comeback this year), Netflix and my Apple TV have been my saving grace at a time in my life when I’ve been largely forced to remain indoors and seek idle entertainment that won’t leave me winded or exposed to the dangerous germs of the outside world.

I thought it might be fun to recount everything that I have watched over the last three months, and thankfully Netflix has been silently keeping track, making this an easier laundry list to compile.

I’ve decided to offer a quick (non-spoilery) review of each item, using the Lumpy Rating System (0-4 Lumps). In this case, the more lumps, the merrier. So, without further ado, here’s what I’ve vegetated over for the past three months.

Sherlock (entire series)     4 Lumps
Maybe I shouldn’t kick off this list with the best show, but the BBC’s Holmes reboot is simply fantastic. Unlike American shows, each season (called a “series”) contains only 3 episodes, each of which is as slickly produced and nearly as long as a short cinematic movie. The dialogue is snappy, the mysteries are compelling, the production value is creative and the acting is superb. The last scene of the first series’ finale is one of the most exciting things I’ve ever watched. Also, if you don’t get the hype over Benedict Cumberbatch, you will after you watch this show. Martin Freeman is awesome as Watson, too. Can’t wait for the Christmas special and Series 4 later this year!

Prison Break (Season 1)     2 Lumps
The premise of this show is really creative and really unrealistic: An architect willfully robs a bank so he can join his wrongfully convicted brother in prison and help bust him out. I was really excited to watch this show, as Theresa and others had hyped it up a lot. While I did enjoy the numerous (yes, quite unrealistic) twists and turns of season one, it was only enough to keep me hooked for one season. By a few episodes into the second season, we’d grown a little weary of the increasing depictions of anti-social prisoners and gratuitous prison life violence. As with many unrealistic shows, the unrealism was also beginning to be a little too much to bear without provoking unwanted laughter from this viewer.

The Tick (the only season)     3 Lumps
This 2001 show has a cult following and it’s easy to see why. It’s about a reject group of superheroes (including a Latino hero hilariously named Batmanuel) led by Patrick Warburton in a giant blue rubber suit. That sounded like a cult worth joining to me, even though Theresa disagreed. The show refreshingly never takes itself very seriously and has quotable dialogue such as this: “Arthur, listen to me carefully. I believe in you! I always have! That’s why I’m here. Destiny dressed you this morning my friend, and now Fear is trying to pull off your pants. If you give up, if you give in, you’re gonna end up naked with Fear just standing there laughing at your dangling unmentionables!” Hard to believe it was canceled after just 9 episodes, huh? The world wasn’t ready.

Freaks and Geeks (only season)     4 Lumps
This is another gone-too-soon show with a cult following and another one of my favorites on this list. It recreates the ups-and-downs of high school in the 1980s, featuring lots of before-they-were-famous celebrities as the freaks (James Franco, Jason Segel, Seth Rogen) and a lot of incredibly-talented-but-never-did-anything-else actors as the geeks. Perhaps it’s because of my own high school geekiness, but I enjoyed the geeks aspect of the show much more than the freaks. The freaks plot lines seemed unrealistic and dramatic, while the geeks were authentic and just plain funny. This show also features lots of cameos by other actors you’ll recognize: Back to the Future’s Biff is the high school gym teacher, The Sandlot’s Squints is an insecure bully who picks on the geeks (that was hard to watch…why, Squints, why?!), Ben Stiller plays a secret service agent at one point and a very young Shia Lebeouf even shows up. This show is worth binging on just to meet geek Bill Haverchuck. He bears more than a passing resemblance to how I looked my freshman year and he should be in the TV Character Hall of Fame. If you’d like a taste, here are the geeks finally having their day as team captains in gym class.

Alias (Seasons 1-5)     3.5 Lumps
This was our most recent television conquest and it was quite a fun ride. Featuring Jennifer Garner as secret agent Sydney Bristow, this J.J. Abrams joint has several ground rules that you must put up with allow to fully enjoy it: 1) All criminal operations are fronted by a night club or bar to allow Sydney to wear the skimpiest disguises imaginable. 2) If someone is pointing a gun at you, just hit them in the arm really fast and you can subdue them before they shoot you.
3) Even if someone seems like they should have died, they probably didn’t. If they did die, there are so many ways to bring them back to life. We watched four out of the five seasons, as the plot twists (and resurrections) started to really go off the rails in the later seasons (See also: J.J. Abrams’ LOST). We scanned episode summaries for season five and felt really good about our decision to move on. Aside from cool gadgets and exciting spy stuff, this show is also an opportunity to see a young Bradley Cooper as Sydney’s friend Will, Victor Garber (of Titanic fame) as Sydney’s father, and LOST’s John Locke even shows up for a season of fun as well. This show deserves popcorn.

Parks and Recreation (Season 2 & 3)     3.5 Lumps
Ah, an old reliable that’s always good for a laugh, no matter how much the chemo might be getting you down. On chemo days, I tend to get home around 5:00, pass out for an hour and wake up feeling like a ton of bricks hit me. I need flat-screen entertainment, but I’m in no mood to follow the high stakes hi-jinx of Sydney Bristow. Enter the government workers of Pawnee, Indiana. I was late to the party when this show originally aired, which was a good thing, because the show took a season to really hit its stride. Much like its comedy mockumentary brother The Office, Parks & Rec has moments of brilliance and wonderful character actors, but also stuck around for a few too many seasons. Enjoy the gold of seasons 2 and 3. You will litralee laugh out loud.

Chuck (Pilot and 2 episodes)   1.5 Lumps
With my Alias run coming to an end, I was looking for another spy show to keep me occupied. Chuck–about a Best Buy employee who accidentally becomes a secret agent when he unknowingly downloads state secrets into his brain (yeah, it’s a comedy)–seemed like a good bet. This is another show that has a cult following, and I believe it was even resurrected after cancellation through the power of fan lobbying. That’s pretty impressive. Alas, I watched the pilot and a couple episodes, but never really connected with the characters or thought the jokes were much to write home about. The thing about having Netflix is that the buffet of show choices at my disposal makes it extra easy to have zero patience for shows that don’t quickly reel me in. Goodbye, Chuck.

Marvel’s Daredevil (Pilot)     1 Lump
Given the horridness of the Ben Affleck film, I was confident that this Netflix original series would do better justice to this blind lawyer by day/crime fighter by night. The pilot was dark (like, so dark that it was difficult to see some scenes on my TV…Are viewers meant to feel like Daredevil?) and honestly pretty boring. I’m giving this 1 lump only because it answered the question of what ever happened to Mighty Ducks Bash Brother Fulton Reed (pictured on the right). Apparently he went on to be the Daredevil’s law partner and is kind of pudgy now. The more you know.

Cheers (Season 1)     3 Lumps
I grew up watching the Disney Afternoon on WGN on weekdays, which was followed immediately by syndicated “family” sitcoms like Full House and eventually more grown-up programming like Cheers. I’m not sure where “doing my homework” fell into that TV-watching schedule, but I got good grades and I also got to know those Boston barflies pretty well. Theresa had never seen the show before, so we decided to start at the beginning. I actually had not seen much of season 1, so it was interesting for me to watch all these well-known characters introduce themselves. While it sometimes takes itself a bit too seriously and is not as laugh-out-loud hilarious as other comedies (or even its spinoff, Frasier), there’s still something really charming about it. It was perfect viewing on my phone while we waited around the emergency room for me to be admitted to a room. Plus, it’s got one of the greatest TV show theme songs of all time.

Frasier (various seasons)     4 Lumps
This is another show that I watched heavily in syndication, so our viewing of it during the chemo era has really just been a whistle stop tour of my favorite episodes as I introduce Theresa to Seattle’s favorite radio psychiatrist. But let’s be honest, the real treat of this show is his hypochondriac, Daphne-loving brother Niles. The nerd-mocking humor runs deep and the writing is superb. If you’re looking for quality laughs, I suggest strolling through seasons 1-4. More specifically, “The Two Mrs. Cranes” and “Moon Dance” are among my all-time favorite episodes. This is another TV show that overstayed its welcome (why can’t networks just cancel high quality shows before they’re forced to jump the shark?), but there’s so much treasure here that it still gets my vote as one of the greatest sitcoms in the history of TV.

Brain Games     3 Lumps
I’m not sure if this is a Netflix original series or what, but this fascinating show turns your TV into a device for viewing optical illusions that mess with your brain. Then the host explains the science behind why your brain was tricked the way it was. We only watched a couple episodes, but it provided an evening of high quality edutainment.

The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt    2.5 Lumps
This straight-to-Netflix series (Remember when TV shows actually had to be on network TV? How quaint.) is the brainchild of Tina Fey and it shows. Much like 30 Rock, Kimmy Schmidt exists in a world where everyone–regardless of age, race, educational level or any other factor–is capable of firing off a Tina Fey-esque witty one-liner or incisive cultural reference. That means that the plot doesn’t really matter, so it’s all on the jokes. When the jokes are funny, the show is funny. When the jokes fall flat, the show feels a little off. In general it’s an offbeat kind of humor that’s not as broadly appealing as Cheers or Frasier or even The Office, but some of the one-liners leave me gasping for air.

The Office     4 Lumps
Speaking of The Office, how great is The Office? Pretty great. Even though I once again have to deny the existence of the later seasons, I love revisiting the Scranton branch as a post-chemo pick-me-up. At its finest, this show achieves a perfect blend of comedy and pathos, but always with an emphasis on the laughs. If it’s been a while since you watched the early seasons, I urge you to return. You’ve probably forgotten just how good it was. And how quotable!

Saturday Night Live     3 Lumps
In its 40-year history, SNL has obviously had its share of ups and downs, but the advent of YouTube has made it easier to weed out the downs. Theresa and I will frequently peruse whatever was uploaded from last week’s show, enjoying the good sketches and skipping past the bad. We’ve also used the 40th anniversary app to revisit a lot of hilarious sketches that I previously hadn’t seen since they originally aired. My Apple TV lets us stream all this from my phone to our TV, too! This app has also been great for on-the-go entertainment when we’re sitting around hospital waiting rooms or if I need a quick laugh while I’m getting my chemo.

The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon     3.5 Lumps
Again, this is not appointment TV viewing, but a weekly YouTube perusal has brought us much joy: from emotional interviews with Ben Stiller to musical impressions with Christina Aguilera to impromptu rapping with Will Smith. I’ve long said that what Jimmy Fallon lacks in comedic talent, he makes up for in his power to arrange spectacles with celebrities. And he’s just so dang likable! You can’t help but be entertained.

Survivor (current season)     3 Lumps
This is the lone exception on this list: a TV show that we actually watch in real time as it airs on network TV! Theresa has long been a Survivor Superfan (seriously…she listens to podcasts with “experts” who break down what happened in a given episode) and, being the good husband that I am (and perhaps as a little payback for her sitting through Cubs games with me), I told her I would watch the current season with her. I have always maintained that reality shows are the furthest thing from reality: they are completely contrived by casting people who are willing to play a certain character (the ditz, the jock, the leader, the loner) and carefully edited to be as dramatic as possible.I stand by my assertion, but that doesn’t mean the show isn’t entertaining to watch. I’ve gotten into following the strategies the players are using to try to win the game. Plus, some of the players–no matter how fake–are very fun to watch. Others are incredibly annoying or just plain mean, and it’s fun to watch them get their comeuppance as well. I’m nowhere near becoming a superfan or checking out any podcasts, but it’s a fun way to spend a Wednesday evening and it’s fun to be able to talk to Theresa about it.

So that about covers it. I was going to add in reviews of all the movies I’ve watched in addition to these TV shows, but this post is long enough as it is. What do you think? Do you agree with me? Think I have no taste? Do you have more TV recommendations for me? I’ve got three more months of chemo, and while I’m sure more hours will be spent outside in the (hopefully) warmer weather, I’m sure I’ll still be putting in a lot of screen time. Leave your thoughts in the comments!