Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Theater Review: The Winter’s Tale

Location: Delacorte Theater in Central Park

Website: Official Shakespeare in the Park site

Starring: Gerry Bamman, Linda Emond, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Byron Jennings, Hamish Linklater, Jesse L. Martin, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Max Wright

My Review: I’m not a Shakespeare expert, by any stretch of the imagination, but I do know that The Winter’s Tale is one of his lesser-known plays. And after seeing the production on offer by this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park festival, I understand why. While the performances are commendable and the set stunning, it’s just…well…not a very good play.

As always, it’s nearly impossible to neatly summarize a Shakespeare play in a few sentences, but I’ll make an attempt. King Leontes has been hosting his beloved childhood friend, King Polixenes, in his home for several months, but the time has come for Polixenes to return home. No amount of persuading from Leontes will convince him to stay longer, but after some cajoling from the kind (and pregnant) Queen Hermione, he agrees to extend his visit. This arouses suspicion in Leontes, who then jumps to all sorts of conclusions and declares his wife and his best friend have been having an affair and that the child she is carrying is a product of their union, and no amount of protesting from the accused two will convince him otherwise. Polixenes flees for home after learning of a plot against his life, and Hermione is imprisoned, gives birth to a daughter, stands trial, and ultimately dies. Then Leontes laments for what he’s lost, finally admitting that his wife was a good and true woman after all. Meanwhile, one of Leontes’ servants has escaped with the newborn baby at the urging of his wife, after the king ordered her to be destroyed. He leaves her on the shore, where she is found by an elderly shepherd and his grown son, who take the baby home and raise her as one of their family.

Sixteen years go by, and the baby girl has grown into the young woman Perdita, who is in love with a young man who is, unbeknownst to her, the son of King Polixenes. They plan to marry, until Polixenes reveals himself to be the boy’s father and refuses to honor the union of his son and a poor shepherd’s daughter. The young lovers escape together to Leontes’ kingdom—where he has been in deep mourning for the past 16 years—with their various family members in hot pursuit. Now that his old friend and his abandoned daughter are back in his kingdom, can Leontes atone for his past and put right all that he did wrong?

Other than the history plays, Shakespeare’s works are generally divided into two categories: The comedies and the tragedies. The Winter’s Tale can never seem to decide which of these it wants to be. With all of Leontes’ jealous raging and the misfortunes it brings, it’s prime tragedy material. But then the clowns of the show appear—the shepherd, his son, and the local thief—and everything is dancing, merriment, and the various bawdy jokes that Shakespeare was so fond of. If a comedy ends with marriage, and a tragedy ends with death, but The Winter’s Tale ends with neither, what does that make it? A tragic comedy? A comic tragedy? A cautionary parable? Or just a really uneven play?

By no means am I suggesting that every play needs to neatly fall into either the “comedy” or “tragedy” category, but The Winter’s Tale doesn’t do well in blending the elements of the two extremes. The first half of the play is so mired in tragic happenings, that it plods along and sags under its own weight. Then the second half (up until the final moments) is so lighthearted and played for laughs, it’s almost goofy. This all leads up to a finale that seems to be plucked out of thin air because Shakespeare suddenly realized he needed an ending for his play. The Winter’s Tale goes out with neither a bang nor a whimper, but more of a yawn and a feeling of “is that all?”

But picking apart the work of a man who’s been dead for 400 years is kind of pointless (not that it stopped from doing it anyway). The Shakespeare in the Park production does the best it can with this subpar work, which almost—but not quite—makes it a worthwhile endeavor. The cast is phenomenal, with Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Pauline being the surprised standout in the serious roles. Pauline is the one person who has no fear in telling Leontes what a fool he is, with the few scenes she appears in involving grandiose speeches attesting that fact, and Jean-Baptiste chews her words raw and angrily spits them in Leontes’ face. Whenever she exits the stage, the show takes a needed pause for the applause that inevitably erupts.

But the real scene stealers are the aforementioned clowns. Max Wright and Jesse Tyler Ferguson (who, for better or worse, will be most recognized as “the dad from Alf” and Mitchell from Modern Family) are the shepherd and his son, and their scenes are so delightful that it’s a shame their characters don’t appear until midway through the show. Part bumbling fools and part moral compass, they’re the everyman (everymen?) who you want to root for among all the royal nonsense.

Also running away with the show—much as he did last summer in Twelfth Night—is Hamish Linklater as Autolycus, the resident criminal. He’s a louse and a thief, who skillfully robs the shepherd’s son blind, but is so nonchalant about it, it’s impossible to be angry with him. Everything he does is for self-promotion, whether that means picking pockets on the road, selling stolen goods at a local festival, or disguising himself as a nobleman. No tactic is beneath Autolycus, and Linklater plays him as such a smooth criminal that you can’t help but to admire all that he gets away with.

Bottom Line: While the moments that are played for comedy shine, on the whole, The Winter’s Tale is an uneven and mostly uninteresting play. Everyone involved in the production elevates it as best they can, but there’s only so much that can be done with the text. Various scenes and character actions seem out of place or are never fully explained (what exactly is the root of Leontes’ insane jealousy, anyway?), so empathy for these characters and the plights set upon them never fully forms. I can’t imagine that The Winter’s Tale is an easy play to take on, and I applaud Shakespeare in the Park for taking on a less-popular Shakespeare work, but hopefully next summer will see the return of his stronger pieces.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Summertime Sucks; Here’s Why

Summer has officially begun, but while most of the world rejoices, I’m considering going into hibernation for the next three months. Sure, like most things that suck as a whole, summer does have some good points: Ice cream, more daylight hours, the lack of need to wear socks. But overall, summer is a horrible season, so put down that refreshing Frappucino (or whatever iced beverage is “in” this year), and taste the Haterade as I detail why summertime sucks.

*It’s hot. People who eagerly look forward to the summer must have some sort of memory loss, because they somehow forgot over the past nine months that it’s hot in the summer. And depending on where you live, it’s humid, too, which makes the heat even worse. Summer is the time of sweaty body parts and pit stains before 10:00 in the morning, no matter how many measures you take to combat them. And if you think the presence of all these sweaty people is helping to control the smell in urban areas, you’re an idiot.

*The clothes. I fully accept that people come in all shapes and sizes. What I won’t accept is people who don’t dress according to their shape and size. As soon as the thermometer creeps over 75 degrees, the masses decide to bust out tiny tank tops, booty shorts, and strappy sundresses. And the smaller and/or shorter these clothing items are, the better, because less clothing = cooler body, right? Well, maybe, but the rest of the world really doesn’t want to see butt-cleavage hanging out the back of cutoffs or boob fat spilling out of tops. There’s a very small percentage of the population that can successfully pull off the tiny summer outfits look, but that won’t stop everyone and their fat mother from wearing them anyway.

*School’s out. Remember when you could go out for lunch and enjoy a peaceful meal somewhere? Or how you could take a day off in the middle of the week to either run errands or do something fun since there wouldn’t be crowds of families everywhere? Well kiss those moments goodbye, because school’s out for the summer and there are children everywhere. Anywhere you go, there will either be hyperactive youngsters constantly underfoot or surly teenagers hanging around the places you like to shop. And there’s also the parents who can’t afford daycare and missed the summer camp signup deadline, so they just bring their kids into the office with them to become a total distraction to everyone else. But hey, it’s summertime! It’s not like anyone else is trying to get some actual work done!

*The crowds. Since school is out, summer is the prime time for families to go on vacation. So if you live anywhere that’s a popular tourist destination, you’re screwed. Vacationers will descend upon your hometown with their plaid shorts and fanny packs, they will clog up your streets/museums/beaches/whatever, and then ask you to take a photo of them standing next to a sign they think is funny. (Yes, you’re standing at the corner of Seaman Ave. and Cumming St., which your friends back in Sheboygan are going to find hilarious!)

*You still have to work. Unless you’re one of the aforementioned bastards who is off for the summer, you probably still need to report to a job of some kind. Which is just all kinds of awful as you gaze out the window at the sunshine and think about all the fun things you’d rather be doing. Naturally you’ve forgotten about the heat, the crowds, the school kids that are everywhere, and the fact that you look terrible in that outfit, because you’d be willing to deal with all of that if you could just get the hell out of this office.

So there you have it; definitive proof that summertime sucks. Now I’m off to douse myself in SPF 60 and sit in front of the blasting air conditioner while I fantasize about falling leaves and apple pie.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Trailer Review: Conviction

Release Date: October 15, 2010

Website: Official Conviction site

Starring: Hillary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver, Melissa Leo, Juliette Lewis, Peter Gallagher

My Review: Oh man, can you smell the Oscar bait up in here? Based on a true story? Check. Starring multiple past nominees and winners? Check. Lead actor de-glamorizes to play a “real” person? Check. The drama centers around a legal and/or political problem? Check. If only Conviction was directed by Clint Eastwood; then it could be guaranteed a slew of nominations come next winter.

Based on the true story of siblings Betty Anne Waters and Kenneth Waters, Hillary Swank and Sam Rockwell play the sister and brother, both adopting the stereotypical blue-collar New England accent to drive the point home that they come from a lower class and poorly educated family. Kenneth is accused of murdering a local woman and sentenced to life in prison. Betty Anne is sure of his innocence, and when they’ve exhausted all of their legal options, she decides to put herself through law school so she can represent her brother.

Of course this will be no easy feat, seeing how Betty Anne is a single mother without even a high school diploma. But if the movies have taught us anything, we all know that no goal is too ambitious if you have guts, determination, and a sassy sidekick (Minnie Driver). So Kenneth cools his heels in jail for several years while Betty Anne toils away, determined to ultimately set him free. Will she succeed? Well, you can either Google “Betty Anne Waters” to find out, or wait until October to see Swank chew up some scenery and Rockwell go through various facial hair phases.

While I’ve got nothing against true crime dramas or stories about overcoming insurmountable odds, Conviction looks just a bit too formulaic, and the trailer just rubs me the wrong way. Is it the cloyingly dramatic prison visitation scenes? Is it that I have never really cared about Hillary Swank? Is it the overused ploy of throwing in the possibility of a corrupt police officer? Or is it those awful accents? Yeah, it’s probably just the accents.

Would I Pay For It?: No. I’ll save my movie ticket dollars and instead bet them on Swank already trying to get back into Million Dollar Baby shape for next year’s Academy Awards. A girl always wants to look her best when being interviewed on the red carpet.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Theater Review: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Location: The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, NY, NY

Website: Official Public Theater site

Starring: Benjamin Walker, Maria Elena Ramirez, Colleen Werthmann, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, Jeff Hiller, Michael Crane, Michael Dunn, Greg Hildreth, Ben Steinfeld

My Review: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is an emo rock musical that offers a satirical look at our controversial seventh President, who is played as a perpetually fame-hungry and petulant 20-something wearing tight jeans and dark eyeliner. And that one-sentence description is all you really need to determine whether or not this show is your cup of tea.

I thoroughly enjoyed BBAJ (as it will henceforth be called). When first entering the theater I knew I was about to see something truly bizarre and totally new. The entire room (stage and audience) is covered in plastic chandeliers and strings of Christmas lights that glow red, with Presidential portraits hanging askew on the walls, and baroque-style tapestries and furniture onstage. It’s like walking into a cross between a former President’s country estate and Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s lab from Rocky Horror. Then the cast stomps onstage—as angry, pale, and overly made up as any real emo band should be—and opens the show with the rousing anthem, “Populism, Yea, Yea!” And then they’re off and running for the next 90 minutes.

Throughout that hour and a half we’re given a condensed look at Jackson’s life, starting with his early years as a frontiersman in Tennessee, to his marriage to an already married woman, to his unsuccessful first run for President, to his eventual win. And during his journey we learn about all the people Jackson hates. Which is, like, everyone. Played by Benjamin Walker as the ultimate angst-ridden post-collegiate, Jackson rails against the British, the Spanish, the elitist government in Washington, and those who he hates worst of all, the Indians (as they are referred to in the show, so don't get on me for being un-PC). He ultimately decides to market himself as a President for the people—as he forms the newly-created Democrat party—just as long as those people are just like him.

It’s a testament to how good a show BBAJ is that while primarily focusing on the most atrocious aspects of Jackson’s life, it’s pretty damn funny. It poses the question of whether Jackson was a visionary or an “American Hitler,” but it seems pretty clear which side the BBAJ creators would fall on. But even as he commits various crimes against humanity, such as the forceful (and often violent) removal of various Indian tribes, every act is played so over the top, but with such angry conviction, it’s like watching a misguided child throwing a theatrical temper-tantrum. Jackson isn’t just mad, he’s SO MAD! Jackson will not be IGNORED! Jackson wants what he wants, and he wants it NOW!

Helping to create this hilarious satire is the emo rock score that runs throughout BBAJ. Every song is loud and angry and loud and tortured and maybe not completely coherent or actually good…but it’s loud, dammit! Which means it means something, man! Not being overly familiar with this particular genre of music, I don’t know if all emo music is as over-the-top as BBAJ’s is, or if it’s been exaggerated for comedic effect. But in either case, it’s the perfect sound to reinforce just how frustrated and tormented poor, poor Andrew Jackson is (like when he sings about how “life sucks, and my life sucks in particular”).

Some time during the latter half of the show, BBAJ loses some of its steam and comes into a rather slow ending. Coincidentally (or not), this slowdown occurs once Jackson finally wins the Presidency, which turns out to be a bit of an indecisive letdown after the frantic campaign trail he ran to get there. The fact that this mirrors our most recent Presidential election could be a fluke, or maybe it’s a shrewd comment on how much we as a country haven’t really changed over the past 170 years. Which is enough to make anyone as angry and frustrated as Andrew Jackson.

Bottom Line: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is a nearly completed work in progress. Having already been tweaked from its premiere in LA in 2008, it’s continuously being polished and tightened as it aims to make the jump from Off-Broadway to Broadway. With a few more songs and a final act that keeps up with the pace of the rest of the show, it should be ready for the move uptown, and able to appeal to audiences who have had enough of jukebox musicals and repurposed Hollywood fare. I just hope that the potential transition to a bigger, brighter theater doesn’t make BBAJ any less demented. Because that would really suck. In particular.

Monday, June 14, 2010

2010 Tony Awards Post-Mortem

My only 2010 Tony Awards prediction to come true is that I didn’t know jack while making my winner predictions. Of all the Broadway seasons in recent memory, this past one is probably the one I’ve been least invested in, having seen hardly any of the nominated performances due to just not caring about them. The season was full of lackluster revivals of mediocre shows and new works that had to rely on casting big-name Hollywood celebrities to sell tickets, which does nothing to allay my fear that New York theater is fast becoming Hollywood Junior, where famous faces and flashy stage tricks outweigh credible talent and well-crafted stories. Sad.

But anyway, here are some of the things that struck me during last night’s Tony Awards broadcast:

* Sean Hayes was a pretty decent host. Neil Patrick Harris did a great job hosting last year, so it was a tough act to follow, but Hayes was funny, charming, happy to be there, and played a mean piano during the opening number. I even enjoyed the moments when he came out in ridiculous costumes. I like my awards show hosts to be a little goofy; it’s gives the illusion that the entire ceremony isn’t a ridiculous and overwrought way of worshiping people whose egos are already inflated enough (which is, of course, exactly what these sort of awards shows are).

* With Scarlett Johansson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Denzel Washington all winning an award, it felt more like Oscar Night than Tony Night. If I was a stage actor, I’d be a little annoyed with these interlopers.

* The sound engineer for the Tony Awards really needs to consider a new line of work. Last year’s ceremony was fraught with audio problems, and this year was no different. Though no one got knocked out by moving scenery this year, so that’s a plus.

* I’m sorry Lea Michele, but I still don’t think you’re nearly as talented or charming as you think you are. But Matthew Morrison, I would love to soft-shoe with you and your dimpled chin.

* I think I kind of want to see American Idiot.

* I know I don’t want to see Memphis.

* The musical number performed by the cast of Promises, Promises contained no singing and no Kristin Chenoweth. I found that odd.

* I still don’t know if Fela! is pronounced “fella” or “fay-la,” since presenters switched back and forth between the two all night. And nearly everyone left out the exclamation point.

* Angela Lansbury and Helen Mirren both looked stunning, elegant, and totally age-appropriate. And neither acted like you should fall at their feet just for being there. Take note, Raquel Welch.

* If David Hyde Pierce and Kelsey Grammar decide to do another TV show where they play brothers, I’d totally watch it.

* I haven’t seen A Little Night Music, and after hearing Catherine Zeta-Jones’ rendition of “Send in the Clowns,” I never will. Someone please tell me she’s a lot better in the actual show. Please?

* Do all atheists silently roll their eyes every time a winner talks about God and how they wouldn’t be where they are if it weren’t for him/her? Or is it just me?

* The drag queens for La Cage aux Folles look way better in spandex and short skirts than I ever have or ever will. You would think this would upset me more, but it doesn’t.

* So hold this moment fast, and live and love as hard as you know how. And make this moment last, because the best of times is now.

Here’s hoping for a more exciting Broadway season to celebrate next year. Until then, I’ll see you at the movies.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

‘Glee’: Why Don’t I Love You?

When the pilot episode of Glee first aired—around this time last year—I was sure that it would become my favorite new TV show. It contained so many things that I love: Splashy musical numbers, a dark sense of humor, Jane Lynch, a tongue-in-cheek approach to a high school-set drama, an appreciation for the underdog, the adorably adorable Matthew Morrison, and some truly talented actors and singers. Sure, it wasn’t a perfect episode—the poorly done syncing of the musical numbers was often painfully distracting—but I had high hopes. Glee was poised to be a show that I would fall in love with.

Then the show’s first season officially kicked off this past fall, and the love affair I was prepared to have never came to fruition. The show turned out to be something that I did watch, and for the most part enjoy, but it was such a disjointed mess that I never managed to get past the “just friends” stage. The song syncing never got any better, plot holes and dropped storylines abounded, there was WAY too much Rachel Berry (played by the talented, but often grating, Lea Michele), and I never grew to find most of the characters as endearing as they were obviously supposed to be.

Even elements of Glee that I did like eventually got on my nerves. I adore Jane Lynch, as anyone with even the slightest sense of humor should, but her portrayal of rabid cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester got to be too much. Sue had some great zingers and scenes throughout the season (like her relationship with her sister who has Down Syndrome and the “Vogue” video from the Madonna episode), but somewhere around mid-season the vitriol she constantly spewed had run its course with me. I always found it kind of ridiculous that a sports coach would be so threatened by the glee club (it would have made more sense if she was the school’s band director or something like that), and her snarking on Will’s hair was such a one-note joke I can’t believe it was repeated in every episode she appeared in. Is a guy having thick, wavy hair really that funny? Plus it totally works on Will (Matthew Morrison), so just let it go, Sue.

The musical numbers are what initially drew me to Glee, as even my most casual acquaintances know I am cuckoo for cocoa puffs when it comes to musicals. But the syncing, the auto-tuning, and the crappy pop tunes were, well, often not very good. When Glee orchestrated a good number, they knocked it out of the park—Matthew Morrison and Kristin Chenoweth’s duet of “One Less Bell/A House Is Not a Home,” the whole gang doing “Don’t Stop Believing” and “Proud Mary,” damn near everything Kurt (Chris Colfer) performed—but I found most of their performances to either be kind of annoying, or worse—totally forgettable. Their choice to constantly feature Rachel and Finn (Cory Monteith) as soloists was a big part of the problem, as Rachel is annoying and makes the most agonizing faces while singing (someone needs to tell Broadway vet Lea Michele that she’s not on stage and the camera picks up every exaggerated expression she makes) and Finn has a perfectly nice backup singer voice that was never meant for solos. So many of the other glee kids shined in the rare occasions they were given to stand out (the aforementioned Kurt, Mercedes, Puck, Santana) that turning Glee into “The Rachel and Finn Show” was a huge mistake. And while I love Matthew Morrison and his gorgeous tenor voice, I could die happy never having to listen to Mr. Shue rap again.

The uneven storytelling and gaping plot holes are probably what hurt Glee’s chances with me the most. No TV show is perfect in this area, and as with all entertainment, some suspension of disbelief is required, but there’s suspending disbelief, and then there’s just plain sloppy writing. After Quinn’s parents kick her out for being pregnant, and she subsequently has to leave Finn’s house after Puck is revealed to be her baby’s father, she is presumably left homeless for a while as this issue isn’t revisited for several months, until she mentions in some throwaway line how living at Puck’s place sucks. Jesse St. James—the Rachel Berry from a rival glee club—woos Rachel, they break up due to only slightly contrived reasons, then they get back together when Jesse realizes he truly has feelings for her. Then out of nowhere, he hates her and goes back to his old glee club, and this relationship is never revisited again. OK, I know high school kids can be fickle with their affections, but what happened to that whole “I think I really like her” arc? And then there was that whole Emma marrying the gym teacher thing. Because she secretly liked Will, but he was still married at the time, so she started dating the gym teacher, who she didn’t like at all and forbade to ever touch her. Then after an episode or two of “dating,” she decided to marry him because if she couldn’t have Will, she might as well settle. Oh, and the gym teacher knew about her crush on Will the whole time, but figured if she was willing to settle for him, then he was cool with it. That whole plot was so rushed, forced, and unbelievable, I don’t know how the writers ever thought the audience would actually believe that wedding would take place.

As the season went on, I felt like Glee started out wanting to be one kind of show, but then after seeing the sort of manic followers it got (cloyingly referred to as “Gleeks”), it decided to be what they wanted it to be. So what started out as a darkly funny and insightful show, turned into a bubblegum pop karaoke-fest where things like logical story progression and credible character arcs don’t matter much. Remember some of the things that went down in the first few episodes? The original glee director gets fired for hitting on the students. Will cons Finn into joining glee by planting marijuana on him. Quinn is the president of the chastity club, discovers she’s pregnant, and manages to convince her boyfriend that he’s the father, even though they never had sex. Finn thinks about the time he ran over the mailman to keep from climaxing too soon. Dark, dark, dark. Now that the first season of Glee has ended and we see the direction the show has taken, is there any chance that things like that would happen in the next season? Doubtful.

So if I have so many issues with Glee, why do I continue to watch it, right? Well, because there are occasional moments where I really do enjoy the show and see glimpses of what I think it was originally meant to be. Like Kurt and the football team doing the “Single Ladies” dance. Or Will coming to the sad realization while his personal life if falling apart that he’s trying to relive his long-gone glory days through the glee kids. Or the achingly touching story of Kurt and his father, who love and support each other, but struggle to truly understand each other. Or any time Brittany or Mike Chang (aka “Other Asian”) get a featured dance solo. And the guest stars Glee gets are like a musical nerd’s wet dream: Kristin Chenoweth! Idina Menzel! Victor Garber! Jonathan Groff! Neil Patrick Harris!

I think Glee’s tragic flaw is that while it has some truly entertaining moments, the sum of its parts is lacking. So I’ve learned to take it for what it is: A TV show that I usually enjoy, but rarely respect. I’m hoping the Glee team takes some time this summer to think about where the show is now and where they want it to go, because the trail it left from where it’s already been is in serious need of a cleanup crew.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Skydiving the Ranch Part II: The Video

Remember the skydiving video I promised you a few days ago? Here it is. You’re welcome.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Conan O’Brien’s ‘Prohibited’ Tour: Doing Unemployment Right

I was unemployed for six months in 2009 after being laid off, and after seeing the kind of crazy fun hilarious stuff Conan O’Brien is doing with his unemployed time, I wish I had been more productive with mine.

So everyone knows the story by now, right? Jay Leno is back to hosting The Tonight Show, Conan is getting a new show on TBS in the fall, and everyone hates NBC (no matter which late night host you prefer). Part of his departure agreement from NBC prohibits Conan from performing comedy on TV, radio, or online until the fall, which left him with several months to fill. Presumably that’s not enough time to establish oneself as a movie star, so Conan decided to hit the streets with his band, writing staff, and sidekick Andy Richter on a multi-city tour, which eventually landed him back at his old stomping ground, New York City. Specifically, Radio City Music Hall. Ironically, just a few yards away from NBC Studios.

There’s really no way to review an event like the “Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour”; if you’re already a fan of Conan’s manic style of performing and bizarre sense of humor, then chances are you’re going to enjoy over two hours of him doing it live in front of you without the censors and filters of network television. So I guess this isn’t a review, but more of a rundown of how the evening went so that you feel bad about not being there.

Leno may be better at pulling in overall viewers, but I don’t think he’s ever had the sort of fans Conan has. They are a rabid and loyal group of followers who relish Conan’s balls to the wall style, who appreciate him even when he’s having an “off” moment, because at least he never goes the easy route of pandering to a middle-of-the-road audience. Why else would we be willing to subject ourselves to the moniker “Team Coco”? Many detractors complain that he’s a millionaire who was paid incredibly well to leave NBC, so he should stop whining about losing his gig there, and there’s some truth there. But when he manages to turn his somewhat unrighteous indignation into comedy gold (which the “Prohibited” tour is), I hope he never gets over it.

So…what to say about the show…well, the band still rocks (even with the absence of drummer Max Weinberg), the pre-taped sketches are hilarious (especially the one featuring Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, which is deliberately poorly re-dubbed in each city to add some local flavor), and Conan is a tireless entertainer. Even the opening act—Brooklyn-based comedian Reggie Watts—was a treat, because with his dandelion-puff afro, stream-of-consciousness songs, and mad beat-boxing skills, he’s so off-centered it’s hard to believe he hasn’t been a member of Conan’s entourage for years.

As the tour has been making its way across the country, various nearby celebrity friends of Conan’s have stopped by to make guest appearances, and I was pretty sure that he would have no shortage of guests here in NYC. To say I was right would be kind of an understatement. First (and least impressive) to stop by was the band Vampire Weekend, who Conan played guitar with while they performed one of their songs, of which I never understood one word (leading me to dub their lead singer “Mushmouth”). Later in the evening, the Walker, Texas Ranger Lever made an appearance—I mean, the Chuck Norris, Rural Policeman Handle (no copyright infringement going on here, NBC)—and Bill Hader, John Krasinski, and Paul Rudd each came onstage to take a turn pulling it. But the moment that really set the crowd off was when Stephen Colbert arrived (apparently in someone else’s pants, as he had trouble keeping them up) to berate Conan for leaving NYC; an argument that ended with them literally nose-to-nose (and mouth-to-mouth) and competing in the world’s most awkward dance-off. When Colbert “injured” himself, Jon Stewart stormed through the audience to take his place. The three men obviously had little time to rehearse their bit, as they giggled and stumbled their way through it, which made the moment that much more enjoyable, especially when Stewart referred to them collectively as the “Basic Cable Boys.”

It was a fantastic night for Conan devotees, as we got a little bit of everything we were hoping for; some well-rehearsed comedy bits, some off-the-cuff improv, celebrity guests, the string dance, general snarkiness, plenty of music, and the world’s least intimidating giant inflatable bat. It’s almost enough to tie us over until November when Conan’s new show premieres on TBS. But not quite enough to justify the $45 they’re charging for souvenir shirts. Which I bought anyway. Because I’m all about helping the struggling artists out there.

Here are a couple of choice (amateur) videos from the night:

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Skydiving the Ranch or: Holy Crap, I Jumped Out of a Plane

I try to keep this blog focused on specific things (namely movies, the theater, and cake), and not let it delve into a personal blog, because I know nobody really cares about my personal life. Occasional exceptions are made, usually to promote a friend or colleague’s project or to let you know that the movie trailer site I work for now has apps available for your mobile devices. But I’m making a big exception today, because I went skydiving for the first time over the weekend, and attention must be paid.

I’m not sure at what point in life a “Things I Want to Do” list becomes a “Bucket” list, but whichever term you prefer, skydiving was on mine. After a few years of hemming and hawing over it, I finally decided it was time to go for it, and settled on going for it at Skydive the Ranch in Gardiner, NY (a small town in the Hudson Valley, not too far from where I grew up). I somehow even managed to talk my best friend into going with me, which clearly indicates that I need to make smarter friends.

As the day for our jump drew closer, I started to feel a weird blend of nervousness and excitement, coupled with a serious questioning of my sanity. Then two days before our jump date, the weather forecast was looking for thunderstorms that day, and I began to panic that if we had to reschedule I may lose the nerve I had spent the past three weeks building up. The morning of jump day was cloudy with sun, and no rain clouds in sight, so we decided to risk it and headed up north, hoping the 90 mile drive from NYC to Gardiner wouldn’t result in the heavens opening on us the instant we got out of our cars.

And for quite possibly the first time ever, Mother Nature was on my side, as the cloudy skies cleared up while we drove and by the time we reached the Ranch, it was a warm, sunny, and slightly humid day. We had watched the required safety videos at home and filled out all the necessary paperwork, which in the end was probably the scariest part of the whole experience, since you are essentially acknowledging that you could possibly die at any point during your jump, and if you do, it’s your own damn fault. Terrific!

After turning in our paperwork and paying the fees, everything went by in a blur. We were told our plane was taking off in 15 minutes and introduced to our instructors, two guys who liked to joke that this was their first day on the job and that not opening the parachute was a great way to get out of paying off debts (we were tandem jumping, so these were the guys who would be strapped to our backs for the duration of our “flight”). We were given jumpsuits to wear over our clothes, which came in either blue or a putrid neon yellow, and for some reason, we both got yellow. Then, after a quick walkthrough of how the jump would go (feet together, arched back, head up), we were boarding the plane with roughly six other jumpers, their instructors, and our videographers (because if you’re going to skydive, you need proof that you did it).

At 13,000 feet it was go time. One by one, the tandem pairs leaped from the plane and I began to question some of my life decisions. My friend jumped before me and then my instructor and I were standing in the open doorway, staring out at nothing but blue sky and clouds. On the count of three, he launched us out the door, and my first thought was, “Jesus Christ, it’s cold up here!” My second thought was, “Aughohmigodwheeaughwoohoo!” We proceeded to freefall until we hit 6,000 feet, which probably only took about a minute, but felt much longer. Then he signaled me to pull the cord, the parachute opened (thankfully), and with a sudden jolt we were gently floating back down to earth. My instructor pointed out various local landmarks that we were flying over, but I was too high over the whole experience to really pay attention. After a few minutes of floating down (and some nauseating spins in the air) we came in for a gentle landing right in the field we were supposed to land in (how one manages to steer a parachute to the proper location, I have no idea).

Though we were told to plan on being at the Ranch for 3-4 hours, we were only there for about 40 minutes from start to finish (I guess they factor in things like weather delays and overcrowded planes when taking reservations). The main question everyone seemed to ask afterward was, “Would you do it again?” And yes, I probably would, just not for a while. It’s kind of an expensive hobby to have, and I’m not sure my mind/body could take that kind of turmoil and exhilaration too often. And if I ever do it again, I’ll find someone else to be my “in case of emergency” contact, since I think I aged my mother an additional 10 years when I told her about my big Memorial Day Weekend plans.

You can see my complete photo collection at my flickr page, and I’m hoping to get my video posted online soon.

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