Wednesday, November 30, 2011

If Scrooge was just a nice, misunderstood Jew instead of a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone

Look, my night started out normal enough. It’s six o’clock, we’re about to close up at my…bank, I guess? Or my real estate office, or whatever it is I do. Anyway, Bob’s on his way out the door, so I tell him, “See ya tomorrow!” I swear, that’s how the whole thing started: I just said “See ya tomorrow.”

I figured I messed up pretty quickly because next thing I know Bob turns around, and he looks so distraught I’m worried he’s gonna tell me Emily’s having an affair or Peter’s got typhus or something. The guy doesn’t even say anything for a while. He just stares at me. So I start wracking my brain trying to figure out what the hell I just did until finally I go, “Something wrong, Bob?” And he stammers out, “Why…t-tomorrow’s C-C-Christmas, sir!”

Christmas! Can you believe it? I had completely forgotten about it! What a schmuck, right? So anyway, I apologize, tell him of course he can take tomorrow off—never mind that he freaked out and filed a missing person report when I stayed home on Yom Kippur—and send him on his way. A slight misunderstanding, but it’s all patched up now. No harm done, right?

Well, that’s what I thought. But once I made it home, things got really fucking weird. I grab some food, light the menorah, start getting ready for bed, and then all of a sudden—and I swear I’m not making this up—who appears but the ghost of Jacob Marley! I’m serious! He starts yammering on about how if I don’t start getting into the Christmas spirit I’ll wind up in hell, which—and I hope I’m not being hypersensitive here—I just found incredibly offensive. And I tried to tell him that I’ve got no problem with Christmas; it’s just that my people don’t celebrate it, so the holiday slips my mind sometimes. But, nope, he’s not having any of it. And then he goes and tells me that, before my night is over, three more ghosts are gonna come visit me!

Anyway, I do my best to get to sleep after this, but sure enough some little girl shows up an hour later. She tells me she’s the Ghost of Christmas Past. I tell her this oughta be a short visit since I don’t have any past Christmases to look at. But she insists on taking my hand and flying me into the past anyway—meanwhile, my indigestion is killing me at this point—and what do we see? Just year after year of Fran and me, bored and playing jacks. I told her the reason we were always so bored was because Christmas has such a dominant role in our culture and that if people like her would just back off from time to time—maybe give Hanukkah a chance in the spotlight—this wouldn’t be a problem. But she wouldn’t budge. It was either convert or be damned. And then, she goes and makes me watch Fran die all over again! I mean, seriously, what the hell? I’m just glad Fred wasn’t around to see it.

Fred got my dreidel, right? Good. And he does still collect dreidels? Well, let’s make sure we check on that for next year.

So this girl finally leaves, and I get all of one minute to myself before the next one shows up: big fat guy, calls himself the Ghost of Christmas Present. This one actually turned out to be a real mensch. He said he was gonna take me to Bob’s house, but then it turned out he had never tried a latke before, so we just wound up eating those for the whole hour. It was great. Reminded me a lot of Abe's bar mitzvah.

So then he leaves, and the last guy shows up. Ghost of Christmas Future. Big surprise with the name, right? He takes me to this lonely, neglected gravestone that says Ebenezer Scrooge on it. I tell him, great, now take me to the one that says Ebenezer Scrimberg. “My business was about to establish a branch in America, and I didn’t want to risk anything,” I say. “Got the idea to change my name from a friend named Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz. Am I proud of it? No. Which is exactly why I had my will specify that I was to be buried under my given name.” Guy didn’t say one word the whole time. It was pretty awkward. Reminded me a lot of Fred's bris. 

Finally, he leaves, and whaddya know, I’m back in my house. It’s like the whole thing never happened. Don’t know what the hell I was supposed to get out of it, apart from a sense of relief that we don’t prioritize missionary work.

Am I ok? Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. Just a little tired is all. Now come on, let’s go grab some food in Limehouse. Maybe catch a theatre production if we have time.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

I'm Probably Too Old To Be Talking About These Things

Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to go see The Muppets with my family. Although a few jokes—such as Kermit picking up the phone and asking to speak to President Carter—indicated that the film was trying to target the older audience members who had grown up with the Muppets (Digression: I know I’m not technically part of the generation that grew up with the Muppets, in that I wasn’t alive for The Muppet Show or the first three movies. However, I did grow up watching Muppet Babies, Muppets Tonight, A Muppet Christmas Carol [which my family still watches every Christmas], Muppet Treasure Island, Muppets From Space Which Wasn't That Great But It Was The Muppets So I Really Wanted To Like It, etc. I will admit that none of these things are as good what those lovable rascals were up to in the 70s, but since they were consistently putting out new material when I was growing up, it does mean I get to feel justified in having missed them.), the previews were skewed much more to the younger demographic. Especially this one:

I don’t have very much to say about the actual content of this trailer, apart from the observations that (1) I will probably not be going to see Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked anytime soon and (2), hey, it’s Phyllis! Granted, there are plenty of cynical observations I could make and questions I could ask, but they all have the same answer: “This film is intended for kids, asshole. Not self-righteous 23-year-olds who would probably really want to see this if they were 15 years younger, especially given that they watched Alvin and the Chipmunks pretty regularly on Cartoon Network for years. What, you thought I didn’t know that? I’m your subconscious, bro! I know all sorts of shit you don’t want getting out.” Or something along those lines, anyway.

There is one question I had, however, that this would not be the answer to, as it concerns something I was genuinely curious about: how long and how many people did it take to come up with the phrase “Chipwrecked?” Was there a board meeting where dozens of studio executives brainstormed words that rhymed with “Chip?” (“What about Alvin and the Chipmunks: Road Chip? They could get into hijinks all across the country!”  “How about Alvin and the Dripmunks? We could have them all get really into impressionism! Ed Harris could cameo!”) Did the writers decide that the chipmunks were going to get marooned on an island before coming up with the title, or can this entire movie premise be traced back to the realization that “ship” rhymes with “chip?” Were any words that rhymed with “munk” considered? Maybe Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chip-Punk where they get really into The Sex Pistols? Or Alvin and the Chipmonks, where they join a monastery and teach the uptight abbot, played by Tommy Lee Jones, how to combine religion with rockin’ out thanks to a last minute cameo from Creed? Also, why didn’t Gonzo have a bigger role in The Muppets, my only complaint about what was otherwise a very enjoyable, heartwarming movie?

Okay, so maybe that did get a little cynical. I apologize. Cynicism is pretty hard to avoid when discussing the Alvin and the Chipmunks films. Still, my interest about the origin of “Chipwrecked” remains. It seems like such a simple decision, but given that it’s Hollywood, I wouldn’t be surprised if people market-tested this and agonized over it for weeks before settling on it. Maybe someday I’ll get to Hollywood myself and figure out the answer. But if I want that to happen, I’ll need to get cracking on my screenplay. Tentative title: Alvin and the Chipmunks: Trip-Funk.

In this movie, Alvin, Simon and Theodore invent a new genre of music called “trip-funk.” It is not pleasant to listen to.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

I Love Community

Trust me on this. I've seen every episode since it premiered back in 2009. I actually decided I was going to be a fan before I even saw the first episode as soon as I found out that Donald Glover was going to be in it. And the thought of it not returning in the midst of its third season makes me cringe (What's going to happen between Troy and Vice Dean Laybourne? They can't leave a story like that unresolved.) and brings back bad memories of "Arrested Development." Especially because I don't think I can wait until 2018 for a movie.


Comparing keeping this show on the air to winning World War II seems a bit melodramatic. Aren't there any posters from the Spanish-American War someone could Photoshop?

Friday, November 25, 2011

A Strained Attempt At Justifying My Emotional Commitment To Television

After the end of last week’s How I Met Your Mother, I was legitimately sad. It wasn’t especially crippling or debilitating, and I’m happy to report that I’ve since made a full recovery. But one question remains, and it’s something I’ve been having a hard time figuring out for years: why do I continually let the actions of fictional characters affect my emotions? And couldn’t this emotional energy be put to much better use if I directed it towards people who are actually, you know, real?

(Very quickly: the answer to the second part of the question is “yes.” Now, onto the first part.)

I started thinking about this approximately one while ago after coming across an article that said Jenna Fischer had recently gotten divorced. I didn’t care, to be blunt, nor do I care about most celebrity divorces that make it into the news. It’s a very easy way to feel morally superior, and I would recommend it to anyone.

The article did, however, fill my head with thoughts of The Office and how I would react if Pam ever got divorced from Jim. Given that I’m capable of discerning the differences between television and reality, I don’t think it would upset me too much. At the same time, I can almost guarantee that it would upset me more than the news of her actual divorce did. In other words, a real life event that had a real life impact on two (probably more) real live people made me feel virtually nothing. On the other hand, a hypothetical made-up event that would have a made-up impact on two made-up people (probably more, although they would all be made-up as well) would disappoint me. Something about this seems wrong.
I think it boils down to a pretty simple concept: I know Jim, and I know Pam, and I don’t know Jenna Fischer, and I literally don’t know her first husband (the “literally” is there because I don’t know what his name is). And the more I think about it, the more I realize that I don’t just know Jim and Pam. I know them very, very well.

Given that I’ve seen every episode of The Office, this means that I’ve spent, at minimum, around 56 hours getting acquainted with Jim and Pam (probably more when you factor in reruns) (also, yes, that number does kind of depress me. I think I’ll go outside after I finish writing this). And it hasn’t just been 56 hours of random small talk and inane chatter. Rather, it’s been 56 hours of revealing character development mixed with a healthy dose of often revealing humor. I was there when Jim got rejected by Pam, when Pam got rejected by Jim, when they started dating, when they struggled through a long distance relationship, when they got married, when they had a baby, etc., etc. It’s almost as if some higher power—let’s call it a “network”—has been deliberately making sure I witness a relatively constant stream of important events in these characters’ lives so that I’ll feel a strong enough attachment with them to keep checking in week after week. But when you put it that way, it just sounds sinister.

Contrastingly, I haven’t spent any time with Jenna Fischer in person. The few times I have seen her as anyone other than Pam, she’s either been portraying a different fictional character or in promotional-tour-late-night-talk-show mode, which I assume and hope is not her genuine personality. I’d get suspicious if anyone was really that cheery and full of amusing anecdotes in real life.

The same thing that’s happened with Jim and Pam has happened with Barney and Robin, whose failure to get back together about two weeks ago caused my aforementioned sadness. I’ve now been hanging out with them for six and a half seasons (give or take a few episodes from season five—I slacked off that year), so at this point, I know a significant amount of information about their personalities, their jobs, their families, their love lives, and their catchphrases.

(Digression: whatever happened to “suit up?” I feel like Barney hasn’t said that in years.)

In real life, when you know this much about another person, you call them a friend (exceptions: historical figures, anonymous sources, people you’re stalking). And if one of your friends just, say, broke up with someone to be with someone else who then decided not to be with them, it seems natural to empathize.

So I guess this means I’m friends with Barney and Robin (and Jim and Pam. And others, but if I start thinking about that too much I’m afraid the list might get embarrassingly long), which in turn explains their ability to make me feel feelings. I’m not entirely comfortable saying that because, again, these are two people who don’t exist. But after spending so much time with them—and, as with Jim and Pam, this time has been purposely constructed to consist of multiple defining, poignant events—I don’t think there’s another option.

Apart from not watching the show anymore. But, come on. I couldn’t ditch my friends like that.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

My First Time Watching A Kardashian-Related Program

It’s impossible to watch your first episode of Kourtney and Kim Take New York in late 2011 without any expectations. At this point, the family has been prominent in the media since 2007, and it seems like their toxic effect on American pop culture has been documented for even longer than that. So I went into this show knowing more or less exactly what I was going to get and how I was going to respond. I would witness a bunch of whiny, entitled, shallow females overreact and be self-centered for 22 minutes, and then I would mercilessly mock them with prose vicious enough to make them forget that they could buy and sell me for approximately 12—maybe even 13—seconds. And then they would shake it off and go continue their million dollar contract negotiations for Kourtney, Khloé, and Kim Konquer Kolorado.

On a certain level, the episode—“A Dash of Respect,” chosen strictly because its title reminded me of an Aretha Franklin song—met these expectations. Kim openly frets about Kourtney not paying enough attention to her before the show even reaches its opening credits. At one point, Khloé utters the phrase, “I’m a rebel in a wolf’s head” with what appears to be complete earnestness. And the inability of each sister to form facial expressions has not been exaggerated.

The Kardashians’ behavior, however, is not particularly over the top. As a result, the problem with this episode of the show is not that it’s rage inducing. The problem is that it’s boring.

“A Dash of Respect” is constructed almost exactly as if it were a scripted episode of a television series entitled Clichéd Storylines. The A story consists of Khloé coming to New York to help Kim and Kourtney open their new Dash clothing store. However, when Khloé arrives, she hangs out exclusively with Kourtney. This upsets Kim, so she tells them about it, and they make up, ending the episode as three happy sisters. The problem is created and resolved in a convenient 22 minutes, all of which were painfully reminiscent of a middle school cafeteria.

The B story is centered on a man named Scott. Scott is never introduced in this episode, so I spent much of the time wondering who he was. He does share the sisters’ inability to form facial expressions and at one point helpfully tells the camera, “I’m very busy, usually, working on corporate stuff,” so I assume he is somehow related to the Kardashians and only makes occasional appearances on the show, as he is usually too busy with corporate stuff.

Scott is very excited because he’s going to be on the cover of Men’s Fitness. This leads him to hire an assistant named Dale to help him manage his busy life of reality television, magazine modeling, and corporate stuff. He is rude to Dale at the Men’s Fitness photo shoot, however, so Dale quits. Scott apologizes to him at the end of the episode and tries to get him to come back, but Dale stands his ground, calling Scott an “egotistical, pompous asshole” in the process. Scott then congratulates himself for giving Dale a backbone, proving that this description of him was well founded. Another problem created and resolved in 22 minutes.

The strongest impression one gets of the characters on Kourtney and Kim Take New York, then, is not that they are insufferable brats. It’s that their lives have been perfectly constructed for a television series. While the viewing populace has to deal with problems that tend to exist both when they go to sleep and after they wake up, the Kardashians’ problems hang around long enough to cause some excitement but leave before they can do any actual damage. And since these problems occur under the guise of “reality” television, maybe that means someday us viewers can live in a world of 22-minute episodic problems as well. It seems a little implausible; then again, so did four hit shows featuring the Kardashians.

This episode does inadvertently reveal why this family has such a reputation for melodrama, however. After all, if the problems they deal with can be resolved in one episode, it effectively disqualifies them from being serious and, subsequently, interesting. Since people have a habit of not watching boring television shows, the best way to combine the audience’s desire for drama with its desire for escapism is to have the characters treat these trivial problems seriously.

That didn’t happen in “A Dash of Respect.” Kim reacted to Khloé and Kourtney leaving her out of their plans—a typical, almost mundane familial problem—like it was a typical, almost mundane familial problem. As a result, it was a boring episode. A huge, sensational brawl in the middle of Dash might not have reflected well on America, but it would have made for some captivating television.

I think we all know which of those two things is more important.