• “Welcome to Sweden,” Episode 2: “Learn the Language”

    Date: 2014.07.17 | Category: Sweden, TV | Comments: 0

    I never thought I would hear the phrase “Nu ska jag knulla dig” on NBC. The word “knulla” was used twice in tonight’s episode of “Welcome to Sweden”–the first time, Emma’s dad complained that “ungdomarna har knullat sönder sängen. Fan också!”

    “Welcome to Sweden” may censor bare butts, but they sure don’t censor naughty Swedish words! Please note: “knulla” is a very vulgar word. So are “fan” (literally: “the devil”) and “skit” (“shit”), which also turned up in this installment. I’m going to define “knulla” as “to have sex,” though Google Translate will give you a more, shall we say, direct definition.

    Between the uncensored language, in this episode, Bruce learned Will Ferrell’s secret to mastering the Swedish language–a tape featuring a super-sexy narrator–and got indigestion from eating cinnamon buns. Cinnamon allergies are rare. Bruce’s gastrointestinal distress sent him to the outhouse, which for some reason is perched right on the water’s edge. This odd placement was enough to make my Swedish aunt stop watching the show, because no one would place an outhouse on a dock!

    Incidentally, my mom grew up in a very, very rural part of Sweden, and their house didn’t have indoor plumbing when she and my aunt (her sister) were young. I remember her telling me that the man who emptied the outhouse buckets in their town had no sense of smell, making him ideally suited to the task. (This article has info about how outhouses were cleaned back in the olden days. “In general, it is best to clean it about once a week in winter and twice a week in summer.” Boy, am I grateful for flush toilets!)

    kallesThis is the brand of margarine on Emma’s family breakfast table: Lätta. That means “light,” so it’s a low-fat product. I also spied a tube of Kalles kaviar on the table. Kaviar is a fish-roe spread that’s sold in a tube. I find it completely unappealing, but it’s an extremely popular product. The brand’s slogan is “En väldigt svensk smak” (“A very Swedish taste”). The tube depicts six-year-old Carl Ameln, the son of the CEO. Fun fact from the Kalles web site: “As a thank you for letting us borrow his face, Carl was given free caviar for the rest of his life. We deliver tubes to his door to this very day.”

    How many Dala horses did you spot in this episode? There was one in the bedroom, one in Emma’s dad’s toolbox, and one at Will Ferrell’s house. While Will Ferrell is indeed married to a Swedish woman, art auctioneer Viveca Paulin, his wife in this episode was played by an actress, Sara Askelöf.

    Emma’s brother Gustav has another money-making scheme, following last week’s taco truck idea. This time, he wants to open a reggae club. Reggae was popular in Sweden long before it made waves in the U.S.–if you want to see something really bizarre, check out Swedish reggae artist Peps Persson’s appearance on the popular variety show “Allsång på Skansen.” He sings in a Southern Swedish (Skånsk) dialect. His first reggae album came out in 1975, and he’s still alive and kicking at the age of 67, so perhaps he could perform at Gustav’s club!

    When Emma’s father Birger is trying to get Bruce to pass him a tool, he’s asking for a bågsåg, or “bow saw.” According to Wikipedia, bow saws are also known as “Swede saws.”

    Emma’s mother overhears her complaint about having to live in a “Friggebod” with her family. A Friggebod is a small house you can build on your property without having to get approval from the government. The maximum size of a Friggebod is 15 square meters, or about 160 square feet, so Emma is obviously exaggerating for effect.

    She and Bruce wind up staying at the Hotel Diplomat on Strandvägen, which is one of the most elegant streets in Stockholm. There’s a beautiful shot showing the waterfront, with the Gröna Lund amusement park off in the distance.

    See you back here again next Thursday, when Bruce and Emma finally move into their apartment in Stockholm, and Bruce tries to meet the neighbors!

  • “Welcome to Sweden,” Episode 1: “Day One”

    Date: 2014.07.10 | Category: Sweden, TV | Comments: 2

    I hope everyone tuned in to the premiere of “Welcome to Sweden” on NBC! A few days ago, I set a Season Pass on my TiVo to record it, selecting, as I always do, “first run only.” (I do this automatically, since some of the cable shows I watch are repeated zillions of times during the week.) Imagine my surprise when I checked and the TiVo was not going to record the show, because it was listed as a rerun in the program guide.

    Welcome to Sweden

    “Original air date: March 21″? Yes, that was the date it originally aired… in Sweden! Also, what’s the deal with the misspelling in the title? “Valkomen”? I can forgive the lack of an umlaut, but it’s välkommen, with two M’s. (That word means “welcome,” by the way.)

    I was able to reprogram the TiVo and see the show. Overall, the content seemed identical to the Swedish version, although the ad breaks seemed oddly placed, particularly the one during the kräftskiva (crayfish party). The program airs on a commercial network in Sweden, but I assume the ads were placed in different slots there. And, of course, there was pixelating. So much pixelating! Heaven forfend that U.S. viewers see a bare butt! None of the butts were pixelated when the show aired in Sweden. Swedes can handle butts.

    A few cultural notes:

    It was great to see Arlanda airport and a Taxi Stockholm cab in the episode. Since I’m not going to Sweden this summer, it made me feel a little wistful.

    Bruce gets seasick en route to Emma’s family’s summer house (his seasickness is a plot point that is also featured in a future episode). It turns out that you can also drive there, however. A gorgeous summer home in (I’m assuming) the Stockholm archipelago that is close enough to the city that it’s accessible by auto? That place would be worth a fortune.

    Emma’s brother mentions that he wants to be an entrepreneur and drive a taco truck. Fun fact: tacos are hugely popular in Sweden. The phenomenon of fredagsmys (literally “cozy Fridays”)–eating tacos at home, usually made with store-bought ingredients made by Old El Paso or the Swedish company Santa Maria (nee Nordfalks)–is so well-established that it’s been the subject of academic papers.

    John PohlmanI’m really glad that the John Pohlman joke stayed in–he’s the Swedish weatherman whose name sounded a bit like Amy Poehler’s (Greg’s sister in real life, but one of Bruce’s “celebrity clients” in the world of the show). For some reason, when I was a child, my family developed a fascination with Pohlman, who delivered the forecasts on Sweden’s state TV network for over 30 years. So that reference felt like a personal shout-out to me. (I’m sure Greg Poehler didn’t come up with that joke, since Pohlman retired years before he moved to Sweden.)

    The time line of the show is a bit skewed, since it seems to be midsummer (Bruce comments on the fact that it never gets dark), but the family is eating crayfish. Nobody would eat crayfish at midsummer! Crayfish parties are held in August, not June. Swedes are very big on tradition. Of course, Emma’s family’s slurping of the crayfish is very funny, so I guess we’ll forgive this little lapse.

    As Bruce learns, don’t drink alcohol in the sauna!

    DalahästKeep an eye out for the dalahäst in interior scenes. Every Swedish home must have at least one. These painted wooden horses are an immediately recognizable symbol of Sweden. They are fabricated by hand in the province of Dalarna, and each one is an individual work of art. You will never find a plastic or Chinese-made dalahäst for sale in Sweden. They tend to be rather expensive, and now you know why.

    Join me here again next Thursday, as Bruce meets up with Will Ferrell and tries to learn Swedish!

  • Mad Food

    Date: 2014.06.08 | Category: Food, Theater | Comments: 0

    A few months ago, one of the local theaters we are involved with began hosting small cocktail parties for donors. They get a chance to mingle with the cast of the play they sponsored, watch a reading long before the show opens, and enjoy wine and hors d’oeuvres. The first such event was catered by a local restaurant, which charged $200. “I’ll bet I can do just as good a job for $20!” I proclaimed. I soon had the chance to put my money where my mouth was, and my career as an unpaid caterer was born.

    For my first cocktail party, I simply picked up some sliced meats and cheeses at Trader Joe’s. I love shopping at TJ’s so it was easy and fun. However, I soon became more ambitious, and ventured into themed foods. For “Always… Patsy Cline,” I decided mini-biscuits with ham seemed vaguely Southern, so I made that, and served them along with cheese cubes, honey-roasted peanuts, and fruit. The next show on the schedule was “Boeing Boeing,” a farce set in the 1960s. This time, I decided to go all out and prepare appetizers from that era.

    Good Housekeeping Appetizer BookThanks to the success of “Mad Men,” a show I have admittedly never watched, it’s extremely easy to find recipes online for period-appropriate hors d’oeuvres. Fans of the show have documented the cocktail parties they’ve thrown to celebrate Don Draper and his crew; deviled eggs, cheese balls, and hollowed-out tomatoes filled with tuna salad seem to be popular with the “Mad Men” crowd. I decided to plunge into the depths of my own cookbook collection, and dug out a copy of Good Housekeeping’s Appetizer Book, published in 1958. (Close enough to the early 60s!) I’m pretty sure I acquired this long ago in a bundle I purchased at an estate sale, along with a bunch of other ancient cookbooks, like Old-Fashioned Molasses Goodies and Chicken ’79!

    Looking through the Appetizer Book, I quickly realized that no one really wants to eat just like our grandparents did back in ’58. Many of the recipes are downright terrifying. I fear our beloved donors would turn and run if I brought in a bowl of Peanut-Ham Spread (1/2 cup peanut butter, a can of deviled ham, 1/4 cup of mayo and 3 tablespoons of chopped dill pickle). Peanut butter figures in several recipes, including the sinister Peanut Butter-Catchup Dip (1/2 cup peanut butter blended with 1/2 cup “catchup”; serve with corn chips).

    ghbookTake a look at this two-page spread, showing Creamy Egg-Chive Dip surrounded by celery hearts, spiced pineapple, and Hash Mounds (squares of white bread topped with mustard, pickle slices, and corned beef hash). This is what passed for “elegant” food 56 years ago.

    I decided to get some inspiration from the cookbook, while avoiding the actual recipes. Below is a pic of some of the food I came up with: a fruit salad of red grapes and canned pineapple (because the 60s were all about canned pineapple); ham and cream cheese roll-ups, made with very modern lavash bread (there were also some vegetarian roll-ups made with chive-and-cilantro spread); mini-pigs in a blanket; and a cheese ball coated with crushed toasted pecans, served with Ritz crackers. One of the donors, who had spent time in Denmark, had suggested to me earlier that I serve sill (Swedish pickled herring); I’m not sure if he was serious or not, but I rose to the challenge and bought a jar. We’ll see how much of that gets eaten.


    The next play is “Little Shop of Horrors,” so I need to come up with some appropriate dishes for that. It’s about a carnivorous plant, and one of the songs featured in the score is called “Somewhere That’s Green,” so perhaps I should focus on green foods. Snap peas and broccoli florets with Green Goddess dressing? Guacamole? Green olives and green grapes? Feel free to leave a suggestion in the comments.


  • A Song For Europe (2014 Edition)

    Date: 2014.05.10 | Category: Music, Sweden, TV | Comments: 1

    I always love watching the Eurovision Song Contest, but this might have been one of the greatest years yet. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Eurovision, it’s an annual song contest held each year in the country which won the previous year’s competition. Last year, Denmark won, so 2014′s Eurovision was held in Copenhagen. Thirty-one countries went into the semi-finals, and 26 moved on to today’s grand finale.

    I, of course, always root for Sweden, which had a strong entry this year with Sanna Nielsen’s power ballad “Undo.” Sanna was a favorite to win, but she wound up coming in a respectable third. “Undo” sounds like the sort of song you could imagine hearing on the radio. It’s smooth and professional, befitting a country which produces global hits on a regular basis.

    In that, however, Sweden’s Eurovision entries are in the minority, because this year also served up some truly bonkers stuff. There was the Polish entry, which was something you might wind up with if Katy Perry had been born in Warsaw and liked to churn butter in her spare time.

    The French group Twin Twin sang a song called “Mustache,” and I’m not entirely sure that this wasn’t an Andy Samberg/The Lonely Island parody sketch. It was quite awful, and fittingly, it finished in last place.

    Did you know that there are boy bands in Belarus? And that they sing songs about cheesecake? Sweet, sweet cheesecake.

    One of the last songs of the night was by the Netherlands duo Common Linnets. I found this song to be quite excellent, in a completely non-ironic way. It has a very heavy Americana influence, with a bit of country twang and beautiful vocal harmonies. Plus, the Linnets have an awesome vintage Dolly Parton/Waylon Jennings look going on. This might just be the most un-Eurovision song I’ve ever heard during Eurovision; in fact, three of the four credited songwriters are American. It finished in second place, which is a little frightening, because while I really like the song, if Eurovision suddenly started being all about high quality professional material, it wouldn’t be nearly as much wacky fun to watch.

    So who took home the crystal microphone statuette? Austria’s entry, a bearded lady: drag queen Conchita Wurst. As far as big, dramatic ballads go, I think Sanna’s was better, but Wurst (25-year-old reality show star née Thomas Neuwirth) had the superior backstory. Petitions to have her removed, or censor her performance from the telecast, circulated in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. The Belarus petition stated, ‘Thanks to European liberals, the popular international contest, which is to be watched by our children, has turned into a hotbed of sodomy.” Won’t somebody think of the children? One minute you’re watching a chick with a beard on TV; the next, you’re checking online to see if Good Vibrations is able to ship butt plugs to Minsk. A vote for Conchita also served to protest institutionalized homophobia in Russia and other Eastern European countries.

    To me, the most upsetting thing about Wurst is that she looks uncannily like Kim Kardashian with facial hair. In fact, Eurovision was won by a trans woman, Israel’s Dana International (no, I don’t know why a middle eastern country participates in a European song contest), way back in 1998, so a drag queen champ isn’t particularly shocking. Anyway, congratulations, Conchita–Eurovision will be heading to Austria in 2015!

  • A Long Day’s Journey

    Date: 2014.05.05 | Category: Theater | Comments: 2

    Every work of art is the breath of a single eternal idea. That’s it. Forget the rest.
    –Belinsky, “The Coast of Utopia: Voyage”

    Everybody who knows me knows I’m a theater fan. Remember, however, that the word “fan” is short for “fanatic,” and I’m pretty sure that only a true fanatic would think that seeing three plays in a single day is a good idea.

    I’ve experienced a few double headers (mostly in New York), but three? That’s kind of crazy.

    This was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity, though. For the past three years, Shotgun Players has been presenting Tom Stoppard’s ambitious trilogy about pre-revolution Russia, “The Coast of Utopia.” In 2012, it staged the first part, “Voyage”; last year brought the second one, “Shipwreck”; and finally, this year, they debuted the final installment, “Salvage,” and ran all three plays together in repertory. Three times during the run, they did marathons of all three plays in one day. The final one was on Saturday, and I was there.

    I had seen “Salvage” a few weeks earlier and had caught the first two during their original runs, but I find that Stoppard’s plays benefit from repeat viewings, and that’s especially true of the deeply wordy “Utopia.” The New York Times published a reading list when the plays were first produced at Lincoln Center a few years back, and Shotgun’s program was chock-a-block with biographies, synopses and history lessons. To be honest, I feel like I would  have to see “Utopia” a couple more times to completely follow everything that’s going on–I have seen Stoppard’s far shorter but equally meaty “Travesties” four times, and discovered new things on every viewing.

    I should add here that to me, Stoppard’s plays never feel like homework. They are rich and romantic and funny and heartbreaking and epic. If they were simply dry intellectual exercises, I wouldn’t love them. I’m not smart enough for that.

    My favorite play of the trilogy is “Shipwreck,” perhaps because so much of it is pure soap opera, stuffed full of infidelity and tragedy. The protagonist of the play, the writer and “father of Russian socialism” Alexander Herzen, says this to a friend shortly after the death of his young son, Kolya, in the titular shipwreck:

    Kolya’s life was what it was. Because children grow up, we think a child’s purpose is to grow up. But a child’s purpose is to be a child. Nature doesn’t disdain what lives only for a day. It pours the whole of itself into each moment. We don’t value the lily less for not being flint and built to last. Life’s bounty is in its flow, later is too late. Where is the song when it’s been sung? The dance when it’s been danced? It’s only we humans who want to own the future, too. We persuade ourselves that the universe is modestly employed in unfolding our destination. We note the haphazard chaos of history by the day, by the hour, but we think there is something wrong with this picture. Where is the unity, the meaning, of nature’s highest creation? Surely those millions of little streams of accident and willfulness have their correction in the vast underground river which, without a doubt, is carrying us to the place where we’re expected! But there is no such place, that’s why it’s called utopia. The death of a child has no more meaning than the death of armies, of nations. Was the child happy while he lived? That is a proper question. If we can’t arrange our own happiness, it’s a conceit beyond vulgarity to arrange the happiness of those who come after us.

    That is the kind of passage that leaves me breathless with its beauty and insight. You can just linger over every sentence, admiring Stoppard’s wisdom and grace.

    While I was looking up some info on the plays, I came across this contrarian piece from Times critic Christopher Isherwood, provocatively headlined, “‘Utopia’ Is A Bore. There, I Said It.” “The play itself strikes me as a stubbornly diffuse, inert and intractable slab of oral history,” complains Isherwood, adding that “Stoppard has so much history to relate that the usual fermenting process that takes place in his imagination, turning arcana into entertainment, never seems to have occurred.” I suspect that the audiences seeing the plays at the small (200-seat) Ashby Stage–home to the west coast premiere after none of the larger theaters in town wanted to tackle something of this scale–had a big advantage over those attending the Lincoln Center staging, and that’s the closeness and immediacy of a smaller setting. From our fourth row seats, the actors were just a few feet away, giving an intimate “you are there” feeling you just don’t get in a 1,000-seat venue.

    shotgunbadgeHaving seen “Voyage” two years ago, I can also attest to the fact that the 2014 version was much improved over the initial staging; the humor and lightness was more readily apparent, the long monologues artfully delivered by actors who, in many cases, have been performing these roles for three years now, allowing them to truly know this material (Nick Medina’s Belinsky, who rants at length about the meaning of art, is a particular stand-out).

    As we left the theater nearly 11 hours after we entered it, I felt exhausted, mentally and physically, but exhilarated as well. It took 70 cast and crew members to put on this play, an astounding feat for a small company. (Expensive, too–afterward, it was announced that Shotgun was eligible for $10,000 via a matching grant, and I was pleased to note that the woman sitting next to me immediately whipped out her checkbook and donated $500.) It’s been a long journey, but a rewarding one too, for the audience and the whole creative team.

  • “Welcome to Sweden”: an immigrant abroad

    Date: 2014.04.21 | Category: Sweden, TV | Comments: 0

    A few years ago, I had recently moved to a new town and gotten involved in the local government when a new TV comedy called “Parks and Recreation” debuted. It was a sitcom about people working in local government! Finally, I thought, I am the target audience for a television show! And indeed, I have grown to love “Parks and Rec” and have watched it faithfully ever since.

    This summer, a new TV show that may as well be target-marketed to me* is hitting the airwaves, and the weird part is that it stars “Parks and Rec” producer/leading lady Amy Poehler’s brother Greg. If you haven’t heard of Greg Poehler, that’s because he’s been living in Sweden for the past seven years, working until fairly recently as a lawyer. He married a Swedish woman he met in New York and is now a father of three.

    Poehler’s show about his experiences as an immigrant is called “Welcome to Sweden,” and it’s been such a huge success there that it’s already been picked up for a second season. It started airing on Sweden’s TV4 network last month and will debut in the U.S. on NBC in July. The episodes have been averaging around 1.5 million viewers in Sweden, which is a pretty astonishing number for a country with a population of 9.5 million.

    Of course, Poehler has stated that the series strives to “find the universality in comedy,” and that “jokes that were exclusively funny to U.S. or Swedish sensibilities ‘were removed,’” according to the Hollywood Reporter. However, there’s still plenty of Swedish content. In the premiere, jet-lagged Bruce (the name of Greg’s character) lands in Sweden and is immediately whisked away to his girlfriend’s family’s summer home, where they are enjoying a kräftskiva (crayfish party), slurping their crustaceans noisily and drinking aquavit. In another episode, Bruce is upset when the cashier at his neighborhood coffee shop doesn’t recognize him, despite the fact that he’s been coming in every day for his fika (coffee break). Compared to the U.S., service in Swedish stores tends to be a lot more impersonal; nobody who waits on you will ever give you the equivalent of “have a nice day,” something a lot of Americans find takes some getting used to.

    (Incidentally, the coffee shop scene contains a faux pas that American viewers won’t notice: Bruce was there to buy a semla, a type of cream-filled bun that is traditionally sold during Lent. However, in the show’s timeline, it is summer. No self-respecting Stockholm coffee shop would sell a semla in July! It would be like an American store selling candy canes in April.)

    Sometimes I feel that Bruce is too big of an asshole; the semla episode is a good example (he starts shoving the pastry in his mouth before the cashier can ring him up, and then when his card is declined, he flippantly asks her to add it to his tab). Later in the show, he fights with another clerk over the price of a massage. I prefer the sweeter moments, when he honestly tries to fit in, to the times when he’s simply inconsiderate or boorish. When he wears his shoes indoors at a friend’s house, scuffing the floors, it’s an honest mistake, since he didn’t realize that wearing shoes inside a home is a big no-no in Sweden (even at a big party); calling his girlfriend’s mom up and trying to speak Swedish to her, using Google Translate, is also funny and human.

    The show is packed with cameos by American stars playing themselves, including KISS frontman Gene Simmons and, of course, Greg’s sis Amy. (Bruce, a former “accountant to the stars,” frequently has to deal with his ex-clients calling or turning up.) Will Ferrell, who is married to a Swede and spends a lot of time there, also makes an appearance, chiding Bruce over the fact that he hasn’t learned Swedish yet.

    At the end of the fifth episode, we briefly meet Bruce’s parents, who are coming to visit. They’re played by Patrick Duffy and Illeana Douglas. This, despite the fact that in real life, Douglas is a mere ten years older than Greg Poehler. Douglas is a wonderful actress, but that bit of casting does grate on me. Lena Olin plays Bruce’s girlfriend’s mom; she is 59, and still beautiful and charismatic. Olin seldom works in the U.S. these days–not surprising in the ageist world of Hollywood–so it’ll be great to have her back on American screens again.

    It would be nice to see “Welcome to Sweden” do well here, though I’m not completely sure American audiences will embrace it. I plan to re-watch and blog about the episodes starting in July, to explain any cultural references that U.S. viewers may not get, grouse about the occasional inaccuracy, and comment on the locations. Set your DVRs and join me then!

    * In case anyone who’s not a regular reader finds their way here via Google: I was born in Stockholm, the child of an American father and a Swedish mother. I grew up in the U.S. and have lived here all my life, but I’ve spent a great deal of time in Sweden (my most recent trip was last August) and truly love it there.

  • The Worst Writing Job in the World (2014 Edition)

    Date: 2014.04.17 | Category: Consumerism, Internet | Comments: 0

    The most popular post on this blog was published way back in 2010, and was titled The Worst Writing Job in the World. The job? Writing Groupon descriptions. I felt it was high time to revisit that post.

    First, I had to check Groupon.com to see if the once-popular discounter was still around. I unsubscribed from its mailings years ago, and haven’t heard anybody mention that they’ve purchased a Groupon in forever. It turns out that the company still exists, and the writing is as marvelously awful as ever. One current sample: “The dough wizards at Papa John’s create circular masterpieces with original and thin crusts made from high-protein flour to support warm bouquets of toppings.” Somebody got paid to write that!

    Unfortunately for the Groupon writers, their stock options aren’t going to make them rich. Groupon closed today at $7.41, down from its NASDAQ debut (and all-time high) of $26 per share. Founder Andrew Mason, who was fired as the company’s CEO in 2013, released a CD of “motivational business music” called Hardly Workin’ after his dismissal. Sample lyric, from “K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid)”: “Don’t make me cut through no thistles/ You can keep all your fancy bells and whistles/ and shove them where the sun don’t shine.” Perhaps Mason could have gotten one of his former employees to ghost-write some better lyrics.

    Now that Groupon is no longer the hot new start-up on the block, it’s time to crown a new king, and I don’t think anybody would disagree with me when I say that the new Worst Writing Job in the World is… Upworthy headline-writer!!!!!

    Upworthy is the horribly annoying site that generates those hyperbolic headlines that just dare you to ignore them. When they first appeared, I clicked on them. But you won’t believe what happened next. I trained myself never to click on an Upworthy URL. Because the articles never lived up to the OMG this is so amazing! promises of the headlines.

    The site has become a favorite target of parodists (Funny or Die, riffing on the Pixar movie “Up”: “The First Ten Minutes Will Make You Sob. The Next 86 Will Change The Way You Think About Balloons”). A joke “headline generator” uses random bits of Upworthy-type phraseology to create counterfeit click-bait. Can you guess which of these headlines are real, and which were generated by the randomizer?

    1. Before You Say Babies Can’t Be Homophobic, Listen To These Six Words From A Former Klansman.

    2. Watch What This Make-Believe Girl Means To 1000 Sexual Predators.

    3. I Thought It Was A Deadly Poison. But Then I Saw This Amazing Short Film.

    4. 9 Out Of 10 Americans Are Completely Wrong About This Mind-Blowing Fact.
    At 1:05, I get a rude awakening. At 1:41, he starts talking about you.

    5. That Moment When An Author Gets Real About The Biggest Problem In America.
    Get ready to spend the rest of the day trying to pick your jaw up off the floor.

    6. His Military Dad Was Disappointed In Him When He Came Out. For A Really Good Reason.
    At 4:48, we meet his dad. At 5:20, we learn why his dad is so amazing. And I try to keep my composure. And at 6:53, it’s party time.

    7. Think You Have Job Security? Maybe You Should Listen To This Queer Former Model.
    At first you’ll be intrigued. Then you’ll be blown away.

    8. I’d Ask You To Like This Photo, But Then I Think That Proves The Photo Right.
    Seeing these three ads was like getting a tweeting-hearting-liking punch in the stomach.

    9. Watch A Slandered Witness To A Murder Become A Legend With Six Words.
    The good stuff starts at 0:30. Make sure to stick around till 1:34.

    10. This Amazing Kid Died. What He Left Behind Is Wondtacular.

    Ready for the answers? The even-numbered stories are real; the odd-numbered ones are fake. “I thought all ten of these headlines were real Upworthy stories. When I found out the truth, it blew my mind.”

    When I wrote my initial post, I was lucky enough to stumble upon the Groupon style guide, which revealed the secrets of achieving the “Groupon voice.” Well, Upworthy has been kind enough to make their how-to document available as well. Page 15 made me roll my eyes. Page 23 made me mad. And by the time I got to Page 28, I kind of hated life.

    Here is the key to writing Upworthy-style headlines, and what must make working there an unmitigated hellscape: you have to write 25 headlines for every single story. Twenty-five! And they illustrate that dictum with a photo of a toilet. In case you didn’t get the point the first time, the document repeats the 25-headline dictum over and over again. (“You should write 25 headlines unless you want the terrorists to win.”)

    The doc also reveals the target market for Upworthy content: moms on Facebook. “Almost all your traffic will come from Facebook,” says one slide, illustrated with a photo of Mark Zuckerberg with a Photoshopped crown on his head. “Middle-aged women are the biggest sharers on the Interwebs.”

    Unfortunately, relying on Facebook is a dangerous business strategy, since the social network site is constantly tweaking its algorithms; one report said that Upworthy’s traffic dropped by 51% after Facebook made major changes to its users’ news feeds. The assumption is that you’d rather see photos of your friend’s new baby than links to Upworthy or the many clones (ViralNova, Elite Daily, etc.) that have followed in its wake.

    If annoying viral headlines are still plaguing you, you might want to try installing a browser plug-in called Downworthy. No longer will phrases like “Will Blow Your Mind” and “You Won’t Believe” infect your web surfing; Downworthy will rewrite them for you on the fly. “Will Blow Your Mind” will be automatically replaced with “Might Perhaps Mildly Entertain You For a Moment”; “Will Change Your Life Forever” turns into “Will Not Change Your Life in ANY Meaningful or Lasting Way”; and “Won the Internet” becomes “seems alright.”

    By the way, if you enjoyed this blog post, be sure to share it with your social network. Feel free to tell them that this photo of a sleeping Boston terrier will totally restore their faith in humanity.

    sleeping Boston terrier

  • “This show’s so good, it ought to be televised.”

    Date: 2014.04.08 | Category: Personal, TV | Comments: 0

    There is nobody who had a bigger influence on my sense of humor than David Letterman. Absurd, sarcastic, mistrustful of authority, a little bit cranky–he is my comedy soul mate. I was fortunate enough to be just the right age to watch his 12:30 PM NBC show: young, energetic, and able to function at school or work the next morning on six hours of sleep.

    Those old episodes are gone from TV and the internet because, I can only assume, Letterman doesn’t want us comparing his former self to the guy who currently appears on CBS five nights a week. Because once Dave moved to CBS, the magic was gone. I kept watching, but found myself tuning in less and less frequently; the only time I watch “Late Show” now is to see his annual Halloween and Christmas shows, or if there’s a guest I’m really interested in. As far as I’m concerned, he’s been phoning it in for well over a decade. His monologue, never the best part of the show, is perfunctory at best; then there’s the going-through-the-motions Top Ten list. The only good part is his unscripted banter with Paul Shaffer.

    It seems like Dave stopped caring about his show as Jay Leno grew increasingly dominant in the ratings. And yet he persevered, perhaps because he wanted to outlast Jay, or beat his idol Johnny Carson’s on-air longevity (Carson retired at 66, and Dave turns 67 on Saturday). But almost everything you’re going to hear about Letterman’s greatness over the next several months will be because of “Late Night,” not “Late Show.”

    What I remember most about “Late Night” is Letterman’s willingness to take chances. There was the time the show was filmed by a camera that slowly rotated 360 degrees, so that halfway through, at 1 AM, the picture was upside down. A rerun was aired dubbed into Spanish. Once, an entire episode was filmed on an airplane. Sometimes, Dave would drop something like a keg of nails or a frozen turkey off a five-story building, just to see what would happen. He wore a suit of Velcro and flung himself at a wall. He held contests to create inexplicable catchphrases (“They pelted us with rocks and garbage”; “Who do you think you are, Bjorn Nitmo?”). And who could forget what happened when giant corporation GE purchased NBC? Dave tried to visit headquarters with a fruit basket for chairman Jack Welch, only to be thwarted by a security guard who wouldn’t even shake hands with the polite Midwestern host.

    Of course, NBC wound up thwarting Dave’s dream of sitting in Johnny Carson’s chair, and he jumped ship for CBS, which launched what must have been one of the biggest ad blitzes in history to introduce its new host to an American public that may not have stayed up late enough to catch his act. I somehow managed to score tickets for the taping of Dave’s very first show at CBS; Paul Newman was sitting just a few seats away from me when he stood up and asked the immortal question, “Where the hell are the singing cats?” Just to prove how long ago this was, my plus-one at the taping was a journalist who was likely the only news reporter in the Ed Sullivan Theater that day (no working press was allowed in). He did get a front-page story, which ran the next day, out of the deal, but his editors made him write it up as a straight news article–he wasn’t even allowed to mention that he was there. No one outside of the theater knew what had transpired until “Late Show” debuted at 11:30 that night. Today, of course, most of the audience would have Tweeted and Instagrammed the heck out of it–#singingcats would probably have been trending on Twitter well before air time. Those were different days.

    A lot of the flavor of “Late Night” can be credited to Letterman’s then-girlfriend, Merrill Markoe, who as head writer on the program created Stupid Pet Tricks, Viewer Mail, and countless other segments. I always feel Markoe doesn’t get enough recognition for her comedic brilliance; I doubt Letterman would be where he is today without her contributions.

    Funnily enough, the #1 contender for Letterman’s soon-to-be-vacated time slot is Stephen Colbert, who currently competes with Dave at 11:30 with his Comedy Central half-hour. According to a New York Times report, Colbert’s contracts with Comedy Central have been timed to coincide with Dave’s, so that if Letterman retired, Colbert wouldn’t be stuck in a long-term deal with the cable network. One of the reasons I watch Colbert religiously is that like Letterman in his NBC days, he’s a risk-taker and an innovator. It worries me that if Colbert moves to CBS, he might get stuck in the monologue-celebrity interview rut. Letterman’s guests this week include Zach Braff and Lindsay Lohan, while Colbert will be interviewing Jane Goodall and mathematician Edward Frenkel. Would a Colbert-hosted “Late Show” require him to stick with a cookie-cutter approach for the sake of ratings?

    (Incidentally, Leno’s successor, Jimmy Fallon, is like the anti-Letterman; no one will ever accuse him of being too rude or caustic to his celebrity guests. The Fallon-led “Tonight Show” could just as well bear the title of an old “Daily Show” parody segment: “We Love Showbiz!”)

    I just hope that once Letterman retires–and I am quite sure he’ll try to drop out of sight completely, as Carson did–his old NBC shows will get a second life as TV reruns or on streaming video. A new generation needs to discover the delights of the Late Night Monkey Cam and the Suit of Suet.

  • Twit-wit

    Date: 2014.03.03 | Category: Internet, Movies | Comments: 1

    Over the years, I’ve given up numerous things for limited periods of time–I gave up sugar for a month, I quit reading mystery novels (to focus on other genres), I’ve shunned dairy. But nothing was as easy to give up as Twitter. I didn’t really miss it, and after a few days of checking in once a day to see if anyone was trying to contact me via the site, I even forgot to do that.

    After my non-Twitter week was up, I unfollowed about a third of the Tweeters on my list–my basic requirements for keeping someone was that (a) their Tweets simply made me happy (Patrick Stewart, Steve Martin) or (b) they provided information that I found useful and/or very interesting on a regular basis (Sarah Weinman, Linda Holmes). I dumped everyone who Tweeted primarily about politics and current events; I listen to enough NPR to know what’s going on. And I got rid of a lot of duplicates–following two TV writers, not a half-dozen, is quite enough, so I picked my favorites.

    Yesterday, I binged on Twitter like a dieter who goes crazy at a  Cheesecake Factory after weeks of deprivation–I watched the Oscars with my iPhone in hand, reading everyone’s funny quips during the ceremony. It made the interminable telecast a lot more fun, especially when something unexpected happened, like John Travolta’s mispronunciation of singer Idina Menzel’s name. (You’d think Travolta could have practiced saying “Idina Menzel” a few times before getting onstage.)

    Those unscripted moments were very welcome, considering how bloated the show was, even by Oscarcast standards. Sure, everyone always complains about how long it is, but the non-awards content was especially bad this year: the WTF “heroes” montages, Pink’s unnecessary rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and worst of all, Bette Midler’s treacly “Wind Beneath My Wings,” which sent Joe lunging for the remote control so he could mute the TV. If they had to have Bette, why couldn’t she have sung during the In Memoriam montage, something that’s often happened in the past? (Esperanza Spalding sang “What A Wonderful World” in 2012, while Celine Dion crooned “Smile” in 2011.) At least I knew the whole shebang would be over by 9 PM or so here on the West Coast–pity the poor Eastern Time Zone residents who had to stay up past midnight. (At least today was a snow day for many of them, so they could sleep in.)

    I’m not going to complain about Ellen DeGeneres, though. She was obviously brought on board to counter Seth MacFarlane’s smutty antics in 2013, and Ellen was Ellen. The producers got exactly what they bargained for. She’s not edgy, but she’s funny, appealing and game for anything. Her now-famous selfie caused my Twitter feed to freeze for 10-15 minutes as the photo was shared over a million times. (Only two people I follow retweeted it, thank goodness.)

    One of the reasons we desperately need the Oscars to be entertaining is that they’ve become so predictable, at least in the major categories. The nine-field Best Picture field had been winnowed down to two serious challengers, “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave.” The Oscars are the last stop for actors who have been making the awards-show rounds for weeks, from the Golden Globes to the Independent Spirit Awards to the BAFTAs and Screen Actors Guild Awards. Best Supporting Actress Lupita Nyong’o, for instance, had already taken home over 25 awards by the time March 2 rolled around. She lost to Jennifer Lawrence at the Globes, but picked up almost every other trophy she was eligible to win. No wonder Oscar-watchers like BoxOfficeGuru.com‘s Gitesh Pandya were able to predict the winners with almost uncanny accuracy. (Pandya’s only error: picking Disney’s “Get a Horse!” instead of “Mr. Hublot” in the Best Animated Short category.)

    Final thoughts:

    Matthew McConaughey obviously practiced his Oscar speech in front of a mirror a bunch of times, since there wasn’t a shred of spontaneity in it; that’s fine, but I wish he’d taken the time to mention the AIDS crisis, the subject of his film, “Dallas Buyers’ Club.” We have better meds nowadays than we did in the 1980s, the time period in which the film took place, but AIDS is still an ongoing issue and he should have said something about it. Nyong’o’s speech, including the line “It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s,” was far more gracious (and humble) than McConaughey’s.

    Speaking of rehearsed speeches, how about “Let It Go” songwriters Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez and their rhyming thank-yous? Personally, I wish that Lopez had opened his shirt to reveal an EGOT necklace like Tracy Jordan’s.

    Hopefully, “The Lego Movie”‘s “Everything is Awesome” will be nominated next year. Don’t watch this unless you want it stuck in your head FOREVER.

    Sometimes I see Restylane or Botox ads and wonder, “Hmm, I wonder if that could make me look fresher and dewier?” and then I see someone like Kim Novak, or Priscilla Presley, or Kenny Rogers, or Bruce Jenner, or Liza Minnelli, or Joan Rivers, and I figure I’ll just stick with Oil of Olay and concealer. Compare Novak’s appearance last night to British actresses like Maggie Smith or Judi Dench who age naturally. I think it’s clear that the Brits look better, despite their wrinkles. (Fun fact: Smith and Dench will both turn 80 in December of this year!) Dench is still flat-out gorgeous, and if Smith had gone under the knife, would she have been able to play the Dowager Countess? And here’s Angela Lansbury in a stunning red dress. It sucks that women aren’t allowed to age in Hollywood–I guess they have different standards in London–but I hope that attitudes will change over time so older actresses will no longer feel the need to mutilate themselves in a futile attempt to look young.

    I only saw one of the nine best picture nominees (“Gravity”). That’s a record low.

  • In the Bag

    Date: 2014.02.12 | Category: Consumerism, Personal | Comments: 1

    Today, I did something I very rarely do–I looked at the traffic stats for this blog. By far the most popular post is a review of a Rush concert I wrote, titling it “What about the voice of Geddy Lee,” a reference to a song by my favorite band, Pavement, which mentions the Canadian singer’s distinctive warble. Apparently, anybody looking for info on Geddy’s voice winds up here. Somewhat disturbingly, another perennial favorite is an entry I posted shortly after a friend of mine committed suicide called “50 (or 25) Reasons to Go On Living.” The top search query that lead people to that one: “why go on living.” Somehow, I can’t imagine that anyone on the brink of doing themselves in will read about my desire to see the rest of August Wilson’s oeuvre or my curiosity about the ultimate fate of Toronto mayor Rob Ford and say, “Why, it really is a wonderful life!”

    This is, in general, not a terribly popular blog. And I’m fine with that. It is simply a place for me to vent when I feel I have something to vent about. I can also target specific readers. This entry is dedicated to my friend Vallery, who always reads the blog and even comments. She is an extremely talented, generous and intelligent person whom I feel privileged to know. Vallery is an avid quilter; you can see some of her work here.

    She is also the person in charge of book bags for the mystery convention I’m involved with, Left Coast Crime. If you have never been to a mystery convention, when you go to the registration desk to sign in, you are given a canvas tote bag filled with books. Free books! Awesome!! However, if you attend a lot of mystery conventions, you will find yourself accumulating a closet full of canvas tote bags. I have at least a dozen of them, and I’ve given a bunch away over the years.

    The thing is, Vallery always does an amazing job selecting the fabric and design. The totes are sturdy and attractive. I almost always take them along on trips; if you see me in an airport, chances are that I’ll have a Left Coast Crime tote slung over my shoulder. However, I will be receiving two new totes next month–Joe is also registered–and I’m reaching a state of Tote Overload. Knowing Vallery, the 2014 tote will probably have unique features that previous bags lacked, but if the new tote becomes my bag of choice, what will I do with all of my old ones? Like a true pack rat, I don’t want to part with them–they hold too many memories.

    So here is what I’m suggesting for future conferences: a BYOT (Bring Your Own Tote) option when you register. If you’ve already attended a million other mystery conventions, simply let the organizers know that you’ll bring an old favorite along next time–no need to manufacture a brand-new bag. It would be fun–you can strike up conversations with people carrying souvenirs of Hawaii ’09 or Santa Fe ’11 and reminisce about times gone by. (I suspect I’d want to flaunt my credentials as a world traveler and would bring a tote from the U.K. CrimeFest conference.) The free books could be kept in boxes behind the registration desk, and you would be handed a few volumes to drop in your tote. Folks like me who have surplus bags could bring extras, in case somebody checks off “I’ll bring a tote” when they register but then forgets to pack it.

    So how about it? It would be economical and environmentally friendly. And I wouldn’t have to worry about running out of closet space in my tote–I mean coat–closet.