Nick & Jessica, meet Sonny & Cher

In April, 2004, I was sitting around, flipping the channels on the ol’ cable box, when I bumped into a program starring Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey. I stuck around for a while, just to see what Jessica would be wearing (or not wearing, as the case may be). Pretty quickly, I realized it was not their grossly-successful MTV reality series, The Newlyweds, but rather an ABC special called The Nick & Jessica Variety Hour.

A few minutes later, I was puzzled. And amused. And feeling strangely like I was in my PJs, in my bedroom, with my brother, sitting before a 14 in. portable TV, circa 1976 (see above). Comedy vignettes were intercut with extended musical numbers. A low-rent animated version of Nick and Jessica took us in and out of commercial breaks. The canned laughter was too loud, too happy and too fast.

In short, more than a parody of the long-lost variety shows of the 70s (Sonny & Cher, Donny & Marie, Tony Orlando & Dawn, et al)—it was the Real Deal. In a good way. This goofy couple was a perfect fit for this brand of disposable entertainment that benefited from talent that could look attractive while singing, dancing, cracking jokes and being self-deprecating.

So while I sat there, feeling surprisingly warm and fuzzy, I think, hey, who did they make this show for?! Nick and Jessica’s target audience was 15 year old girls, aka teenagers born 15 years after The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour was cancelled. Shit, it probably didn’t even have any relevance to the hosts. (In all fairness, Nick Lachey was born in 1974—news to me—but still…)

And as I pondered all of this, Nick and Jessica decided to mish-mash the 70s with the 80s and include sketches with Mr. T and KITT (from Knight Rider). And then, with this faux commercial (which takes a stab at Nick’s failing solo career), they took it to a whole new level of weird …

Astute viewers will recognize the silent guy as H. Jon Benjamin, famous as the voice of Benjamin Katz (Dr. Katz, top), Coach McGuirk (Home Movies), Sterling Archer (Archer, bottom), and Bob Belcher (Bob’s Burgers). Now my internal monologue included, “Wait…What?…Jon Benjamin? But he’s not even talking? What’s the point!?” (Honestly, casting Jon Benjamin in a non-speaking role is as clever as casting mime Marcel Marceau in a speaking role.)

By this point, I was bought and sold. I was firmly convinced that talented forces were behind this: their heart was in the right place; it looked and felt like something I embraced from my youth; and had contributions from one of my favorite comedians of the last decade.

Before the Hour was over, Kenny Rogers came out for a duet; a musical medley used excerpts from A Chorus Line and Godspell; and Johnny Bench joined Nick and Jessica for a skit that was both an uncanny impersonation of sports celebrity appearances from the 70s and a broadly funny gag in its own terms. Check it out–and pay attention to Johnny’s entrance: there’s a massive contrast between the enthusiastic canned applause and an audience full of confused teenagers lethargically clapping…

As far as paying tribute to the TV shows of a bygone era, the only things The Nick & Jessica Variety Hour was missing were the long dissolves-over-zoom shots that dominated ballads 30 years ago and a surprise appearance from Ray Jay Johnson, Jr.

They wrapped up the show on an obvious-but-well-earned note: Nick and Jessica sang Sonny & Cher’s signature song, “I Got You, Babe.” And even though it’s clear that Nick and Jessica are no Sonny & Cher, the ironies/similarities abound: The husband can’t sing as well as the wife (although Sonny wrote “I Got You, Babe” around his vocal limitations, not Nick’s); they genuinely enjoy performing together; and this marriage also has a shelf life. In fact, Nick and Jessica took the Sonny & Cher tribute so far, they were divorce a mere two years after this special aired.

So do I recommend you get The Nick & Jessica Variety Hour from Netflix? Aw, Hell. Not really. I enjoyed it because I had no idea what was coming—a fact I’ve spoiled in this post (sorry). If you want to take that trip down Memory Lane, you can get genuine Sonny & Cher episodes on DVD just as easily. But I’ll give the kids–and the forces behind them–credit for throwing my generation a bone. It was nice to know that for one hour, it was the Youth of Middle America that was scratching their heads, saying, “What the fuck is this?!


Filed under Humor, My Youth, TV

Zitner’s Butter Krak and the Addiction

Show of hands who’s ever had a Butter Krak Egg? If you raised your hand, then please bond with me at my guest post at Words to Eat By. If you never had one—and are partial to cocoanut (toasted and otherwise), buttercream and dark chocolate–then you simply must get all the details here.

And while you’re there, you can see what happens when a 4-year-old gets his first taste of this highly -addictive and insane seasonal, regional treat.

Remember, Harry: the first taste is free…

Leave a comment

Filed under Blogs, Food

W.C. Fields Suffers the Weight of the World

Beginning tomorrow, Friday, April 22nd, New York City’s Film Forum, will have a 12-day W.C. Fields film festival, showing most of his films (all 35mm prints!). So it’s a perfect time to share some of my observations on Mr. Fields. I think most people nowadays—those unfamiliar with his films—would characterize his iconic persona as ‘a drunk who doesn’t like children.’ There’s a lot of truth to that interpretation, but there was much more, something that I became more attune to as I got older. The characters in his domestic comedies (i.e. The Man on a Flying Trapeze or The Bank Dick) endured a very deep suffering. The struggle of being a husband, a father, a provider is a theme I began to appreciate as I’ve moved on in years. Subsequently, my aching laughter when watching his films has evolved into empathy.

A case in point is It’s a Gift (1934), generally regarded as Fields’s masterpiece and the film that kicks off the Film Forum Festival this weekend. Fields plays Harold Bissonette, a family man and owner of a grocery store, who suffers endlessly at the hands of his wife, children, customers—even his neighbor’s children–all the while dreaming of buying an orange grove in California. Most scenes are set-pieces, isolated sketches, typical of comedies of the early 30s; for example, early on, in his store he concurrently battles an enraged customer demanding kumquats, an inept employee, and the blind, near-deaf, cane-swinging Mr. Muckle. It’s sisyphean comedy at its best. It’s not unlike scenes from his earlier shorts, i.e. “The Dentist,” but thanks to the context—a middle-aged man pursuing his dreams against tremendous odds—the pain in these scenes is all the more painful.

I think my point is shown best midway through the film. It’s nighttime and having already endured endless hen-pecking from his wife, Harold takes his pillow and blanket outside (A). Thus begins an 11-minute sequence, where he tries in vain to sleep on their apartment balcony (B). Although the clock says it’s 4:30am—when all the world should be asleep–he’s unknowingly moved into the eye of the storm.

In short order, he’s tormented by a falling cocoanut (1), a bottle-clanking milkman (2), an ice-pick-wielding toddler (3), and a continuation of his wife’s needling (4).

He’s even harassed by an insurance salesman…

In my teens, the funniest part of this scene was the prolonged spelling of the ridiculous name “LaFong,” however, as an adult/husband/father/freelancer trying to eke out a living, I’m struck by the sad, sad irony of trying to sleep while a man cheerfully tells you you’ll have to work every day until you’re 90. That’s when my laughter turns to fatigue. And fear. And bonding. If you listen closely, at the end of the clip, he emotes under his breath, “If I could only retire now.” No wonder at one point later in the scene, he looks at the camera—at us—as if to say, “See what I have to deal with?”…

The film is such an endless gagfest, it’s easy to miss its most subdued moment, its most poignant. Harold’s just used a recent inheritance to purchase an orange grove, much to his wife’s dismay. She badgers and bemoans, all of which he takes without rebuttal, like any beaten man would. However, at the end of the scene, he quietly tells her, as he’s leaving the room, that he’s sold their grocery store, a selfish act that will uproot his family. Her shock and outrage tells us he’s never done anything like this before.

But it’s Fields’s delivery that is so effective. There’s no fanfare, no argument, no “I’m putting my foot down!” outburst. He just says it. Because if Harold didn’t seize control, didn’t act impetuously, didn’t instigate change with his own hand, then all the other suffering would truly be unbearable. And so when he tells his wife that he’s irrevocably changed their lives, it’s the film’s Moment of Clarity, Harold’s quiet assertion of controlling his own destiny.

For further reading I steer you to “Godfrey Daniel!”, an excellent piece by Ivan G. Shreve, Jr., on the blog Edward Copeland on Film. Shreve and I share a similar take on Fields’s film persona, and he astutely observes that his characters “suffer the slings and arrows…with a Zen-like stoicism that instantly puts the viewer in his corner.”

I also heartily recommend going to Film Forum and seeing any of Fields’s films with a packed house, which is how his films were meant to be seen. You shouldn’t take anything I’ve written here as an indication to look for something deeper, certainly not at the sake of laughing your pants off. But it’s there. It doesn’t make the films funnier; it just makes them more than funny.


(By the way, I may not make it to Film Forum this weekend, where It’s a Gift is sharing a bill with “The Dentist.” If anyone does, please tell me which print of the latter they use. For further explanation of the various prints of the film that exist, check out my post W.C. Fields and the Musical Laughtrack.)


Filed under Comedy, Film

From Hyannisport to the Jersey Shore

This timeline (cynically) charts the evolution of observational documentary in America, from 1960 to the present. The first still is from Primary, a game-changing film about JFK and Hubert Humphrey’s life on the campaign trail. Its principal architects were producer/soundman Robert Drew and photographer/editors Ricky Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, Terence McCartney-Fillgate, and Albert Maysles.

Fifty years later, four of those gentlemen are still making films, but sadly, Ricky Leacock recently passed away. Peter Schneider, an old friend of mine who co-owns Gotham Sound, a sound gear sales-and-rental house in NYC, asked me to write about Mr. Leacock for their blog, the Gotham Gazette. I was thrilled and flattered since their blog passionately promotes the values and standards of 60s and 70s New York City location filmmaking at its best.

Click here to read my post Ricky Leacock and “The Sense of Being There.”

1 Comment

Filed under Film

Little League, Big Fear

Spring is here and that can mean only one thing: baseball. But specifically for me, it can mean one more thing: anguished reminders of my panicked youth.

Naturally and obviously, I was a pipsqueak in my early days, neither muscular nor agile. (My father used to say that I wasn’t likely to win the title “Mr. Universe,” however I might win “Mr. Barney Fife.”) But I was also not competitive, which didn’t sit right with the prevalent vibe in working class Maple Shade, NJ, in the 70s. Oh, sure, the parents and coaches of organized sports would say the requisite, “Winning isn’t everything,” but they certainly didn’t mean it. This was no Special Olympics, where “everyone is a winner.” Hell, no. Long before there were Soccer Moms, there were Baseball Dads, and, for reasons I can’t recollect, I joined the CYO (aka the Catholic Youth Organization) baseball league. No one in my family made me play organized sports–as I’m sure was the case with a lot of my friends. I’m extremely grateful that I had neither a Soccer Mom nor a Baseball Dad, but joining the CYO plunged me headfirst into the world of “Winning is Everything.”

How much of a pipsqueak was I? How traumatic was the experience of playing organized sports? Here’s a brief story, a nugget, that answers both questions. The first day of practice for the Maple Shade Pharmacy Dodgers—my first day on the ballfield—the coach (a Baseball Dad for sure) decided to scope out his new team’s hitting skills.  We all went to the plate, one after another, and he threw us easy pitches. He let each of us stay there until we made contact with the ball, no matter how long it took. He’d shout encouragement (“Atta boy!” “Yer a natural!” “Good eye, good eye!”) and if necessary make the pitches super easy for those that were smaller and more frail. When it was my turn, I swung and swung and swung. And swung. Everyone watched. After a while—minutes in reality, years in Sweat Time–my teammates ran out of laughter and the coach ran out of encouragement, patience and ultimately pitches. “OK, let’s give it a rest. Give someone else a chance.” So, what is Shame? How about watching 15 of your peers look awkwardly away from you. Actual bullies and assholes were saying, “Aw, man. Give the kid a break.”

That was 1978 and miraculously I stuck with it, and by the following year, I was half-way decent. In fact, I toggled between pitching and playing first base, which means either I really blossomed or the rest of the team really sucked. Frankly, we were a pretty crappy team, hovering around 5th place in a league of 7 teams.

As the season progressed and April became May became June, one thing was clear: the Burlington County Pirates were unbeatable. It was like they had tenure for victory. Looking at their winning scores (i.e. 28-0 over the Astros) you’d think it was a football game.

Towards the end of the season, the Dodgers were due to face the Pirates one last time, or, as we on the Dodgers assumed, one last beating. Their record by game 16 (of an 18 game season) was 16 Wins and 0 Loses. Shit.

(At this point in the story, now that David and Goliath have been established, it’s best to imagine you’re watching a lost episode of Ken Burns’ Baseball.)

Monday, June 25, 1979. Late afternoon. The Dodgers’ manager Jack Graham picks me up on the way to Lower Field. He tells me in the car that I’ll be the starting pitcher. “Really? Are you sure?” I kinda sucked at pitching, but figured he was throwing in the towel…and I was the towel.

Even though I was only 10, I embraced some of the traditions of a major leaguer, including superstitions. For example, it was my belief that if my first pitch of the game was a strike, then I’d win; if it was a ball, I’d lose. My first pitch that day was a strike, and instantly I was no longer superstitious.

I gave up a few runs pretty quickly. Before long, the Pirates were up by 6. We had a slow start, with our Worst against the Pirates’ Best. Case in point: Johnny Cutillo ruined a promising inning for with his unassisted triple play (WTF?!). I mean, come on! It felt like we were being smothered with a tennis racket: it took forever, hurt like Hell, and we could watch the whole thing happening.

But, miraculously, the tide turned. I kept them at only 6 runs, which against the Pirates was Nolan-Ryan-esque. In fact, I got 12 strikeouts. And when we were at the plate, we were on fire! In the second half of the game, we scored 12 runs, thanks to a couple hits apiece from my buddies Tommy Gee, Walt Severns, and catcher Mike Rowan. It was like the Bizarro version of a CYO game.

As we inched closer to the last inning, the tension mounted. For sixteen straight victories, the Pirates had proven they were never more than a pitch away from a multi-run rally. But I held my own and, unbelievably, there were more people in attendance in the last inning than there were at the beginning.

Insert my 10-year-old face here.

I pitched a strike for the final out of the game. I leapt from the mound, arms straight up in the air. I’d say I was impersonating relief pitcher Tug McGraw’s victorious jump when he helped the Phillies win the World Series—except that didn’t happen until 1980, the following summer. (Hmmm…was Tug at that CYO game…?)

It was nuts. My team went ballistic. We ruined the Pirates perfect season. Fuckin’ A. How big was this victory? Well, here’s what the Maple Shade Progress had to say, but screw that. Here’s a better illustration: recently I told this story to my old friend Bobby. He grew up with all the players, so when I was talking about how my team lost a lot and the Pirates won a lot, he kept nodding, saying, “Sure. Sure. What do you expect? Makes sense. Those guys were killers” and so on. But when I got to the winning pitch, he said, “Get the fuck out!” and high-fived me. (You know what they say: if a 30-year-old story is high-fivable, then it’s bloggable.)

Afterward, the manager gave me the ball. “You earned this, Stephen.” (Frankly, he might as well have said, “Here you go. It’s never going to get any better than this.”) A few days later, at the season wrap-up pool party, I got my teammates to sign it. It stayed in my mom’s basement for a couple of decades, but since my son’s been around, I’ve had it on display, on a shelf, right next to my cat’s ashes.

I know they say winning isn’t everything, but it sure as Hell was that day.

(A BIG Thanks to my old teammate Walt Severns for holding onto that team picture for decades. Thanks, Bro!)


Filed under My Youth

Neil Diamond and The Last Waltz…WTF? (or An Appeal for Neil)

Recently, Neil Diamond was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which prompted the requisite confusion that accompanies any sentence with the words “Neil Diamond” and “Rock and Roll” in it. A few years ago, I would have joined in on the Neil-bashing, since I, too, have had contempt for him for most of my life. Luckily, I have a few cronies who’ve set me straight.

Honestly, my fandom is limited mostly to his first singles, the mid-60s period when he was on Bang records and rose to stardom on such hits as “Solitary Man,” “Cherry, Cherry,” and “Kentucky Woman.” Jesus, they’re great songs. And anytime I’m a late-comer to an artist, film or LP, I rack my brain to figure out why, why, why? Why have I lost decades I could have spent listening to “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” which I now have to make up for, replaying it morning, noon and night (much to my wife’s frustration).

Why did I forsake you, Neil?

The answer is simple: Martin Scorsese’s 1978 film The Last Waltz.

I got the film on an RCA CED videodisc in 1983. My brother got it, actually, convinced by some elders that any self-respecting rock and roll fan should love that film. (Sound advice.) I was unfamiliar with most of the performers in the film, and I inched my way through it a song at a time. I’d hear an Eric Clapton song on the radio, then I’d queue up “Further on Up the Road” in The Last Waltz. I’d notice “Mannish Boy” in Risky Business, so I’d revisit Muddy Waters’s version in the documentary. I’d see Dr. John on SCTV and –boom–I’d have a fresh take on his performance from the Scorsese film. And so on. Before long, I was wearing a scarf around high school, à la Robbie Robertson (see below) and named my first car “Ophelia,” after the Band song.

But one ongoing sticking point was that damned “Dry Your Eyes” number smack dab in the middle of the film. In 1983, at age 13, I already had a dim view on Neil Diamond. He was beloved by people’s parents, but not for me and my expanding rock and roll palate. He was too busy being that jazz singer who stopped bringing flowers to Barbra. I was alienated by his presence in Scorsese’s film, thought he was a stiff snooze, and that this was the last nail in Neil’s coffin: I wrote him off and closed my ears and heart to All Things Neil. He was dead to me.

If you need a reminder of Neil’s contribution to the 1976 concert/1978 film, here it is…

And if you’re still reading, you probably fall under one of three categories: 1. Neil Diamond fans who will follow him anywhere; 2. Last Waltz fans who are strongly opinionated about his appearance in the film, pro or con; or 3. someone who just saw the film and wonder why that sunglasses-wearing sore thumb was on the stage. If you’re in that last category, than this post is for you. This is what I wish I could have read when I was 13 years old.

In the next few paragraphs, I’ll explain why Diamond was there that night; why his performance misfired; and how it might have gone down if it were handled differently.

Fashion hero Robbie Robertson

Intellectually, Neil’s participation in The Last Waltz makes some sense: Band member Robbie Robertson had spearheaded the event and wanted representation from all the aspects of the Band’s sound, their “musical wheel,” as he called it: Southern blues, Canadian folk, New Orleans funk, and so on. Neil Diamond represented the NYC-based “Brill Building Sound,” named after the building on Broadway where several talented songwriters wrote hit after hit in the 60s, writers that included Leiber & Stoller, Goffin & King, Bacharach & David, and Greenwich & Berry. Although the Band sound didn’t exactly scream “New York City,” Robbie had an affinity for that era of popular song writing. In fact, he had just produced Neil Diamond’s latest LP, the critically-acclaimed but poor-selling Beautiful Noise. (You can raise a cynical eyebrow now, if you like.)

So there is a heady logic to Neil taking the stage after Joni Mitchell and before Van Morrison. After that, logic falls apart at every turn, blame falling entirely on the choice of song. Whether or not “Dry Your Eyes” is a good song is irrelevant; it’s a woefully inappropriate song for that concert.

Neil Diamond was one of the only two performers that night to perform exclusively new material. Every artist that performed more than one song shrewdly included one tried-and-true house burner: Neil Young wowed them “Helpless,” Van Morrison slayed with “Caravan,” Muddy Waters destroyed with “Mannish Boy,” and so on. And the artists who did perform only one song, each chose a surefire classic: Dr. John brought the house down with “Such a Night,” Ronnie Hawkins’s “Who Do You Love?” turned the Winterland into the world’s largest backwoods bar, Paul Butterfield (dueting with Levon Helm) took everyone on the “Mystery Train.” Besides Neil Diamond, only Joni Mitchell did all new material, but I don’t think anyone was expecting her to come out singing “Help Me.”

You could argue that Neil’s peers played it safe—or you could say they gave the fans what they wanted. Irregardless, Neil Diamond comes out, sporting stand-offish sunglasses and “looking more like a movie producer than a musician” (to quote music journalist Barney Hoskyns) and does a song that no one could sing along with, a song that just doesn’t swing, y’know?

And there’s the rub: Robbie wanted representation from the 60s NYC pop scene—but chose a song written in the 70s, on the West Coast—coincidentally, a song that just happened to be co-written by Robbie Robertson. (Being a huge Robbie supporter, that detail has always pained me. It’s just reeks of opportunism.)

If Neil had “played it safe” and performed something he’d literally written in the Brill Building, there would have been plenty to choose from, all familiar to the audience. At the very least, the Winterland’s universal voice would have said, “Aw, man, I know this tune,” as opposed to, “Huh…? Dry your what…?”

And how would have that sounded if Neil had played something surefire? What if, for example, he went all the way back, to his first single, “Solitary Man” from 1966? It might have sounded like this, which is his performance in Australia six months before The Last Waltz.

OK, it’s definitely not as good looking as The Last Waltz—and Neil’s swapped his lapels and shades for rhinestones and leather pants. But that aside, I could imagine the Band backing him on this, with Garth Hudson providing sweeping organ fills and Robbie punctuating the lyrics with his fractured-note style. (That night, the Band did an excellent job of making sure their guests did not sound like oldies acts.)

And then maybe in 1983, the 13-year-old version of me—a Neil Diamond skeptic—would have sought out the original version of the tune, and embraced it, and become one of those gung-ho NeilHeads you meet every now and then.

So my parting advice to anyone who’s written off Neil Diamond because of his 3 (long) minutes in that great, great film, The Last Waltz: Don’t give up on the Man. Check out the recently released The Bang Years 1966-68 collection and you’ll hear some timeless music.

And for those Neil Loyalists out there who defend him to the grave and insist on putting that 1976 performance on a pedestal, just remember this: that was the only time Neil ever performed “Dry Your Eyes” live, so perhaps Neil himself isn’t a fan of his performance that night.


Filed under Film, Music

Eric Mendelsohn and the Extra Mile

Eric Mendelsohn’s new film, 3 Backyards, opens this Friday, March 11, at the IFC Center in Manhattan. stars Embeth Davidtz, Edie Falco, and Elias Koteas.

In 1998, I was the Supervising Sound Editor for Judy Berlin, the first feature by Eric Mendelsohn. It was an experience that pushed me to my limit physically and emotionally. However, Eric was charming enough and naïve enough to convince me that anything is possible. Here’s a perfect example…

In the thick of the sound editing, he and producer Rocco Caruso asked me to make a “temp mix” for the videotape they were submitting for Sundance consideration. In layman’s terms, this meant that I stop the meticulous sound editing of the finished film so I could crank out something sounding half-way decent on a VHS tape–not the best use of my time. At one point, when I was definitely running out of patience, Eric turned to me, looked me dead in the eye, and said sincerely, “I want you to imagine that this one sound effect you’re putting in is going to be the one thing that makes the difference between Sundance saying Yes or saying No.” And it worked: I went the extra mile for Eric. In fact, I did so over and over again, so many times during the next few weeks, that the film should have been called The Extra Mile.

Actually, it “worked” on Sundance, too: that year Eric won their Best Director award. His latest film, 3 Backyards played at Sundance in 2010 and he won the same award again. (He’s two for two.)

3 Backyards (God, I love that title) is about a day in the life of a handful of people who live in middle class Long Island. Since I haven’t seen the film, this post is not a review, although you can certainly get the gist from Marshall Fine’s review at Huffington Post. Instead, Eric, who’s as shrewd a PT Barnum as he is a filmmaker, gave me an interview, which pulls back the curtain on the making of the film.

This film, like Eric’s other films–the short “Through an Open Window” (1993) and the aforementioned Judy Berlin (1999)—was produced by his old friend and business partner Rocco Caruso, on an incredibly tight budget. A mere $300,000, meaning the film wasn’t “made” as much as it was “willed into existence.”

Getting a cast and crew together on such a shoestring—or “on a micro-micro-micro-budget” as Eric calls it—actually isn’t as Herculean as keeping them there, getting them  to work beyond their normal breaking point, all in support of Eric’s vision. Personally, I always wondered if his plea to me 12 years ago was in fact a “line” or some shtick, duping me into doing his bidding. He insists it was not the case at all and never his style. “I so firmly believe in the Importance of the Moment that I’m not using a new tack, or coming up with a strategy to win someone over. I teach [directing at Columbia] and I tell this to my students all the time: ‘You have a choice when you make any kind of artwork. It’s a tradeoff. The tradeoff is between being exhausted on the one hand and creating something great, potentially, on the other hand.’ That’s such a fair tradeoff. Why wouldn’t you just be exhausted?

“So at times when I feel we are never going to have this Moment again and I need to rally people, I try to make everyone remember, OK, we will be a little exhausted this week or this month, but in the end we will have something concrete that we’re proud of, that we did, that we worked for.”

And although Eric’s capable of inspiring a cast and crew to such extremes, he had no deulsions that the production couldn’t collapse at any time. “We thought we were going to run out of money after Day 5 and have to close down, and I said, ‘Well, then these will be the five great days where we played with actors and cameras and zooms and lenses, and those were really five great days that we will remember.’ It sounds incredible to me that I said this, but I really believed it. I was totally invested in the process and it was the most exciting creative experience of my life.”

Obviously, the challenge of pulling this off provides its own rush and incentive for Eric. He explains, “Do you know in E.T., when the little alien is making the kids understand what planet he is from and he lifts all the balls into the air and they swim into a solar system? [see above] Well, making 3 Backyards, I had this vision in my head of an entire film lifted up into the air, floating there by sheer willpower, and floating there were actors and houses and props and costumes and transportation, and crew housing, and everything. I had this thought: Could one person–and it wasn’t just me, but a lot of it fell from me to sort of excite people to do–lift everything in the air and keep it lifted until production was over?

“For example, in the opening of Edie’s part of the movie, she is painting in her backyard. The backyard of the house is donated by a local resident of the town. The easel that she is painting at is donated. The artwork was painted by a local artist. The paints that she is using are donated from Grumbacher Art Supplies. The plants in her backyard were on loan–if we kept them alive–from the local florist in Northport. There is nothing about the scene that is paid for or substantial. It’s all just floating in air. So, if you can extrapolate every scene in the movie that is held together like that–every car, every location, every house, every crewmember was put up in a homeowner’s house for the entire shoot; some stranger agreed to have people sleeping on couches—that’s how the film was made.

“I still get nervous sometimes at night thinking the whole thing is going to fall apart, and I have to remember the film is over.”

As much as Eric speaks of art and sacrifice for the sake of art, he is open to compromise.  “Look, the film was originally called 4 Backyards, and ten days before shooting, we realized we could not financially accomplish four backyards and, like that character in 127 Hours, I cut off my own arm. I just said. ‘No. Nothing is going to stop me from making this movie. I see a way that it can perfectly exist and I will rewrite it a week-and-a-half before we go.’ We had to tell the actors who were involved in that ‘fourth backyard’ that we were canceling it; all the locations, everything, and it was a really liberating way of working. Not being crushed by every problem, but instead looking at it as an opportunity.”

The flattering reviews from New York Magazine and Variety make no bones about it: 3 Backyards is an out-and-out Art Film, aka not everyone’s cup of tea. Clearly, this isn’t a revelation to Eric. “There is something really perverse about putting all of this time and energy and effort into artwork. It’s like half of the cave is going out and trying to kill, hunt and gather, and the other half, or maybe two cavemen, are painting cave paintings, but taking it just as seriously as everybody out killing mastodons. When you see movies like The Conversation or any Jacques Demy film, you’re looking at the work of somebody who took the time and the energy and the effort to care about your experience. So you only have a certain amount of those opportunities in your life to do that for someone else.

“Not to compare myself, but my heroes are people like the Impressionists. And if they had listened to everyone at the time, they would have been making the boring Salon paintings, which nobody even gives a shit about today. They had a new idea and they said, ‘Let’s go and do this. Maybe we will poor. Who cares?’ And I love that spirit. If films didn’t cost so much, the experimentation would be immense. But because they cost so much, everyone is so Goddamned timid. But Rocco Caruso’s said three times in my life now, ‘Here. I have saved up the money. Let’s do something exciting that is new and is a stab at what we think a film should be rather than cautiously hewing to what convention tells us we should be doing’. I don’t want to die and say, ‘Here’s my body of work. It is cautious and fits the template of many other things made by my generation.’”


I’ll wrap things up with an anecdote, perhaps my most memorable experience with Eric, one that sums up his acute sensitivity to others and his keen ability to seize the moment. In December, 1998, when we were in the home stretch of mixing Judy Berlin, I was about to have something pretty much unheard of in the NY dating scene: a second date stemming from a blind date. She was a costume designer, and I was really nervous because I had no sense of fashion. I expressed my fears to Eric. He stopped what he was doing and sized me up and down.

“Don’t worry, “ he said confidently. “I have the perfect sweater for you.” It was cashmere and fit like a glove and, yes, it helped make my second date a success. Craziest of all: it had been worn by Woody Allen. Y’see, prior to being a filmmaker, Eric was an assistant costume designer on four Woody Allen films, and the sweater was from Husbands and Wives. Considering I totally bought into the whole “I love Woody and I’m dating in New York and it’s Annie Hall all over again” philosophy, it didn’t hurt to literally wear the man’s clothing. I mean how freakin’ cool is that?! It was all very voodoo of Eric, but then again, he’s proven to me repeatedly that he can make magic happen.


Once again, Eric’s 3 Backyards opens this weekend at the IFC Center in Manhattan. At the moment, it’s only scheduled for one week, so if you’re at all interested, I urge you to go. It’ll be opening March 18th on Long Island, in Huntington, at the Cinema Arts Centre.

Here’s the film’s website and you can get IFC tickets here. Eric will be at several of the 8:10 screenings for a Q&A afterwards. And if you go to the IFC Center tonight, and see a guy that looks an like the picture on this post, passing out 3 Backyards postcards, well, you can guess who it is. Yep, Eric’s idea of “micro-micro-micro-budget” doesn’t end when the film is finished. He does whatever he can to personally deliver his film to a hungry audience.


Filed under Film

Marc Maron and the Stalker Guilt Syndrome

Comedian Marc Maron’s podcast WTF is all the rage nowadays. For 17 months he’s been building a steady, loyal audience, eager to hear him rant, rave, opine and hangout with friends, enemies, and frenemies, most of whom are fellow comedians he’s known over his two decades in the Business. Thanks to recent articles in the New York Times and Rolling Stone, he has more listeners than ever—and frankly, with coverage like that, I hesitated to write this post. I wasn’t sure I had anything to add to those accolades, but I’ll give it a shot.

First, some history and context…

In 1998, my very good friend Jonah Kaplan (who I quoted in my last post) was making a short film, with the working title “It’s Not What You Think.” It’s a simple notion—a guy walking to his girlfriend’s house—and the complications that arise because he’s neurotic. Being very narration-intensive, Johah shrewdly decided to cast a stand-up comic in the lead, hoping an expressive voice would overcome any inexperience acting in front of a camera. He made several visits to NYC comedy clubs and set his sites on Marc Maron, whose energy bore some resemblance to his own. (Jonah’s very emotional, observant, and one of the funniest people I’ve ever met.)

Since I had already done some sound editing for Jonah on a prior project, he brought me on-board in the early stages, which made me privy to his creative process. I recorded most of the narration sessions, which is when Jonah and Marc worked together the most intimately. There were several sessions, all progressively shorter than the last. In the end, there was almost 10 hours of studio time for a mere 10 minutes of  voice over.

Although Jonah’s script was in great shape, there was room for Marc to bring his personal touch. This process of personalizing the voice over was intense to behold: Jonah, a neurotic Jew in his late 20s, paying $150 an hour for studio time, struggled before the neurotic-but-intimidating Jewish comic. Marc was critical of some of the dialog and didn’t spare Jonah’s feelings. A couple of times he raised his voice, barking, “What do want me to say?! Huh? You want me to say this…” and he would spontaneously say something so incredibly funny and perfect for the film that Jonah would begin laughing through his fear and say, “Yes! That’s perfect!”

In six years of engineering similar sessions, this was definitely the most collaborative one I’d ever seen, with results that genuinely improved the finished film. (Marc got a well-earned “additional dialogue” credit.)

The end result was named “Stalker Gulit Syndrome,” and it played well on the festival circuit. I was lucky enough to see it at in Austin and NYC, and the same thing happened both times: the reaction to the film’s first line (which is only 3 words) was overwhelming. Every man in the audience said to himself, “That’s me alright,” and every woman said, “I knew it! I knew that’s what they’re thinking!” It was fascinating how quickly Jonah put us IN THE FILM. Mere seconds. (Naturally, I have a link for it at the end of the post.)

Time marched on. Jonah and I remained friends, and I knew Marc was still on the comedy club circuit. A few weeks ago, I heard about is podcast, WTF. I was immediately drawn to it because comedy analysis amazes me (i.e. Steve Martin’s autobiography, Born Standing Up; the documentary Comedian with Jerry Seinfeld; The Aristocrats). Why we laugh; why we need to laugh; what power does laughter have over our emotions, our thinking, our bodies; and so on.

But I quickly noticed that Marc’s brand of existential rap (i.e. in the podcast’s opening he yells out, “What’s wrong with me?!”), as well as the turf covered by his guests, sounded uncannily like…me. Marc’s 47 and I’m six years younger, and being in your 40s which carries its own brand of crazy, one that’s new to me. It dawned on me that as someone who doesn’t indulge talk shows or talk radio, there isn’t anyone in the media I listen to that I can identify with. There isn’t any public figure out there that says things that make me respond, “That’s me alright.”

Marc and his guests are expressing my fears, my anxieties. For example, Paul Provezna discussed his career-crippling stage fright a few years ago, which he finally realized was a reaction to no longer being a young comedian. And Louis C.K. and Marc dissected the ups and downs of their 20 year friendship, one peppered with love, jealousy and regret. And many humorously vent about the conditions of their bodies as they enter the “other side” of their lifespan. And in all of these instances I’m nodding my head in agreement or shaking my head in relief or wondering how the Hell did they climb into my head and pilfer my thoughts and feelings.

Does this mean the podcast doesn’t have value for others, for those that don’t fit that demographic? Obviously not since it’s drawing huge numbers. Does this kind of probing make it any less entertaining? Probably a little. But comedy has been entertaining me my whole life, and it’s always nice when it cuts deeper.

So, check out WTF, if you haven’t already. And if you drop Marc a line (he responded to my fan e-mail within a day), be sure to ask him about “Stalker Guilt Syndrome.” I’d love to hear him talk about it on the podcast.

And speaking of Jonah Kaplan’s film, here ‘tis, all 11 minutes of it. And play it LOUD—it sounds great!


If you like what  you see and want more, check out Jonah’s interview with director Spike Jonze. Good stuff, good stuff.


Filed under Comedy

New York City, Seen from a Distance

Don’t you see? The rest of the country looks upon New York like we’re left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers? I think of us that way sometimes and I live here.

Of course, that’s Alvy Singer talking, Woody Allen’s character in Annie Hall. When I’d watch that film as a high school student in South Jersey, longing to move north, that line made more of an impression on me than others in the film (which is saying a lot). None of those labels (communist, Jewish, etc.) applied to me, but being an outsider in high school, I certainly knew the feeling of being labeled and mislabeled.

I’ve been an NYC resident a couple of decades now and still see the truth in Alvy’s comment, particularly the how the “rest of the country looks upon New York” part. Here’s some examples of when his observation comes to mind…

The 1974 film The Taking of Pelham One Two Three presumably shows an atypical day in New York City, one where a subway car is hijacked and its passengers held for ransom. Although a few different posters promoted the film, here’s the one used the most worldwide. It’s a POV shot of what a passenger might see if peeking into the next subway car…

I expected this didn’t seem so farfetched a sight to the rest of the world, because as they all know (or imagine), it’s commonplace for New York City subway passengers to point semi-automatic rifles at a mother and her children, right?

Here’s another instance. A buddy of mine, Jonah Kaplan, made a student film in 1990. It’s called Bicycle and includes an intense recreation of the perils of bike riding in NYC (his home town). Here’s a 30 second sample…

(Sadly, the internet is a total letdown here. To see this 7-minute film on the big screen, in a packed theater, is to enjoy a 3D-like experience that makes Avatar look as 1 dimensional as its script.)

Jonah’s film enjoyed enormous success on the festival circuit (it played in almost 20, many of them in non-English-speaking countries). He admits that it was accepted at foreign festivals in part because there’s no dialog in the film—but he says the audiences generally felt that “this is what living in New York is like all the time.”

My final example comes from 1977, an infamous year in the city’s history (detailed thoroughly in Jonathan Mahler’s Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning). Political upheaval. Son of Sam. The Blackout. More than usual, the outside world perceived NYC as a blighted metropolis on the brink of disaster or self-destruction. And in the midst of that, the Yankees were in the World Series. The pressure was on since they hadn’t won one in 15 years, an unfathomable drought for New Yorkers. (Man, sometimes I wish the average Yankee fan could spend a few years living in Philly.)

By Game 6, the Yankees had won three games, and the LA Dodgers had won two. That night, Reggie Jackson made history by hitting 3 home runs, in 3 consecutive times at bat, in only 3 pitches, off 3 different pitchers. (Un-believable.) His last was in the 8th inning, and when he took the field in the top of the 9th, the Yankee fans were bloodthirsty for victory and couldn’t contain themselves. Even though security had been quadrupled, it wasn’t enough: some over-enthused fans threw firecrackers towards Reggie in right field, forcing him to take drastic measures.

This two minute clips begins with his reaction to being pelted by the explosive love of his admirers, and concludes with the final out of the game and its aftermath. It’s very famous footage, but if you’ve already seen it, I encourage you to give it another look—and this time pay close attention to announcers Howard Cosell and Keith Jackson…

Now I’ve seen plenty of footage of World Series victories: players jumping on each other, fans storming the fields, and so on. But this clip is seriously fucked up. It’s not so much like “The Giants win the Pennant! The Giants win the Pennant!!” as it is “Oh, the humanity!” Cops with raised nightsticks, kicking fans on the ground; a cloud of dust rising above the melee; and poor Reggie Jackson running for his life, bodyslamming New Yorkers.

But Keith Jackson and Howard Cosell make no allusion to the violent insanity, no cries for someone to declare martial law. Something tells me they were saying to themselves, “Well, what do you expect? This is New York, isn’t it? Just another night in the Big Apple.”


Filed under New York City

A Very Barney Christmas to You All!

A couple of days ago, in my mini-tribute to the late Steve Landesberg, I posted a clip from an episode of Barney Miller Tracking down that scene—scanning through the three seasons that are available on DVD—brought me so much joy, I’ve strung together many, many more clips. It’s 9 minutes and by no means complete. (Hell, there’s no Inspector Luger and no clips from the legendary hash brownie episode. Sorry!)

You can see how much of a Jack Soo junkie I am. Jesus, that guy was funny. Gratefully, the show’s writers occasionally gave him a chance to show his range. My favorite example was the Season 3 Christmas episode, which aired December 23, 1976. His character, Nick, gets a date with a Japanese mugging victim (Nobu McCarthy), not knowing she’s a hooker. I’ve edited that plotline into a single 7 minute clip. It’s funny, it’s sweet, it makes me wish Soo had done more straight-forward acting.

Happy Holidays!!


Filed under Comedy, TV