Monthly Archives: December 2010

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

In Praise of Barney Miller

A few days ago, we lost another one. Comedian and actor Steve Landesburg passed away. Sadly underused and underrated, he made his most lasting impact as the fact-filled Lt. Arthur Dietrich on ABC’s Barney Miller, the great sitcom of the 70s.

I’ve always had a special affection for that show. When it originally aired, I was too young to “get” its droll sensibilities. So much of its comedy was derived from pondering, pauses and outright silence, that I hadn’t a clue what could be inspiring so much laughter from the studio audience. Still, I faithfully watched it by my Pop’s side (it was one of his favorites). He’d sit there laughing and laughing, and I’d be saying in my pipsqueak voice, “What’s so funny? I don’t get it? There’s nothing going on! They’re not even talking! Why are you laughing?!” I started to catch on when I was around 11 (aka Barney Miller’s 7th season).

I could go on and on about show’s many accomplishments/merits:
        -its depiction of bankrupt New York City in the 70s and the impact that had on crime and the city’s mentality
        -its theme song, arguably the most-sung bassline of all time, giving air-bassists a weekly workout

-its principle cast (don’t get me started!)

        -its supporting cast, a rotation of character actors, which made the show virtually a weekly Preston Sturges film; creators Danny Arnold and Theodore Flicker fearlessly reused actors season and season, always in different roles, like a stock company. (For example, the crumpled Phil Leeds appeared 7 times in 8 seasons, each time playing a different victim or perpetrator.)

But that praise will have to come another time. Until then, here’s a clip that sums up the show’s strengths. It’s the conclusion of season 3’s 4th episode (“Bus Stop”), which aired October 14, 1976, but that’s all irrelevant. Lt. Dietrich is doing what he usually does—espousing fact after fact—to his fellow detectives, Phil Fish (Abe Vigoda) and Nick Yemana (Jack Soo). It’s a beautiful example of comic timing.

Who could imagine so much laughter could be derived by simply watching two homely men chew doughnuts?


Filed under Comedy, R.I.P.

Meeting Spalding Gray, Pt 2, or My Adventures in Blurbing

Last post I recounted the good fortune I had to meet Spalding Gray in 1989. Our paths crossed again in the summer of 1994. By then I was fresh out of film school and hustling around NYC as a location scout, editor, AP, you name it. A new hobby of mine was giving away VHS copies of In Person, my short documentary about fans of Frank Sinatra; I’d mail it to anyone who’d ever accomplished anything and who might then say something nice (and quotable) about my film. I began with some filmmakers I’d had direct contact with via film school, such as documentarian D.A. Pennebaker, and soon learned that I was ensconced in the World of Blurbing. I was unaware of all the permutations of the word “blurb” beyond a noun, but my shucking-and-jiving was apparently a common practice.

I’m loathe to do the whole “Y’know, kids, before there was the internet…” rap, but there was something incredibly homespun about self-promotion in the last century that’s different nowadays. I think this story has an old-timey blend of happenstance, legwork and luck.

Understandably, Spalding was high on my list of craftsmen/celebrities that I hoped would blurb my film. (In Person is composed entirely of people telling stories.) After some research, I sent him a tape, through his agent, a package which also included my standard cover letter (equal parts fawning and begging, as humbly as possible). Months passed, until one night, in the midst of a terrible date, I checked my answering machine…

I’d call that a keeper.

A couple of months of phone tag ensued. I’d call him, apologize, reintroduce myself, remind him of my film—and all the while, on the other end, he’d be apologizing back, explaining his delays in writing the blurb, and encouraging me to keep calling him. When Kathie Russo, his wife, would answer the phone, she’d promise to hound him on my behalf. Eventually, during one of these calls, she invited me to a benefit performance of Gray’s Anatomy, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Wooster Group.

The event was in late November, at Washington Irving High School in the city, in their auditorium. I was always thrilled to get free tickets and/or food (I still get that way). Just before Spalding took the stage, looked across the aisle to see John Waters sitting a few feet from me! (On the way out, I timed it so we’d be side-by-side. I introduced myself and handed him the VHS of my film [naturally I had a copy with me]. He gushed over the cover photo and said he couldn’t wait to see the film—but then quickly added, “But I won’t blurb it!” Damn!)

At the reception afterwards, I gingerly approached Spalding, who was standing with three other people. He remembered me and introduced me to Kathie. (Even though she wasn’t new in his life, she was unknown to the general public. She told me that she’d be arriving “in a few monologues.”) She teased him about dragging his heels on writing something for me (it had been almost five months since his phone call). The other couple standing there asked, “What film?” Before I could speak up, Spalding and Kathie spoke at length about my short documentary. I didn’t have to do anything. They did all the hyping for me! I felt like the belle of the ball. A dream. I love this town! During my giddiness, I looked over my shoulder and there was Steve Buscemi, standing solo, nursing a cocktail! Holy smokes! (And I had just given out my last VHS! Double damn!)

The night ended with Spalding reiterating that I should keep nagging him. A week or so later, I called. Once more, Spalding offered sincere apologies. “Call me back in 10 minutes, with a pen and paper ready.”

I did and he told me to write down everything he said. He spoke slowly and specifically about my film: “A delightful implosion. What a nice surprise to see not-so-ordinary people become the stars simply by talking about THE STAR.” He clarified every period and hyphen and stressed that the last two words “should be all capital letters.”

And that’s the story. Hardly Swimming to Cambodia, but memorable nevertheless (especially for a 25-year-old kid). Based on Spalding’s generosity every time I had contact with him, I’m inclined to believe others had similar experiences: friendly, a tad neurotic, and definitely “New York.” If you have any of your own, I encourage you to visit and share them on the Brushes with Spalding page. There’s a lot of great stories already there.


Filed under City Living

New York Stories: Meeting Spalding Gray

Being a teenager in South Jersey in the 80s, obsessed with the Velvet Underground, Talking Heads, Andy Warhol, etc., I understandably had dreams of moving to NYC. Hell, repeated late night, VHS viewings of Midnight Cowboy and After Hours only inked the deal. I imagined trolling those mean streets, humming “Everybody’s talkin’ at me…,” bumping into Marty, Woody, Patti, and Iggy on a weekly/bi-weekly basis. This daydream was reinforced by something that happened while I was a sophomore in college, living near—but not in—NYC.

The fall of 1989. Sunday, September 17 to be exact. My college roommate, Dav-o, and I had just seen left-of-center trumpeter Jon Hassell perform at the World Financial Center. Hassell alone would be enough to draw me, but the real thrill was that the sound was mixed by Brian Eno. In fact, I sat as close as possible to the mixing board and watched the Master at work (the closest I may ever get to seeing Eno perform “live”). On the Metro North train back to our college in Westchester, still on an ambient high, I saw someone standing in profile who looked an awful lot like Spalding Gray. Just standing. Not reading. Not writing. Not monolog-ing. Momentarily, I questioned my sanity; I had just spent an hour sitting a few feet from Brian Eno and wondered if my Dream New York was taking shape. I whispered to Dav-o, “Dude, I think that’s Spalding Gray! But I’m not sure.”

“Spalding!” my fearless roommate immediately yelled, and we both shrunk down in our seats to see if he responded. He did, laconically, as you might expect. He had a pencil over his ear, which I thought was a nice touch.

With prodding from Dav-o, I approached Spalding, apologized for drawing attention to him, and we engaged in a brief conversation. I told him I was a fan and went so far as to say that I too enjoyed telling stories. I asked for an autograph. All I had was a paperback of short stories called The Vintage Bradbury. Spalding balked for a moment, feeling disrespectful to the author, but ultimately took his pencil and opened the book. Just as he was poised to write, he paused, looked at his pencil, and tentatively said (at this moment, please adopt your best Spalding Gray voice, timing and delivery): “Um, sorry…It’s a #3 lead.”


We both stayed static for a moment, as if this might be a dealbreaker, but he then shrugged and continued.

When I read it, I instantly thought, “Man, you just gave me a great story!”

I’d say watching Brian Eno at work and meeting Spalding Gray within hours qualifies as one of the Best Days of My Life, certainly to the young, impressionable “New York” junkie that still lurks inside me. My run-in with David Byrne ranks pretty high, too. And, naturally, meeting Andy Warhol while I was still in high school has some currency. But they all pale next to my brief one-on-one with Mr. Iggy Pop. (Man, one of these days I’m going to have to write that post.)

My most interesting Adventure with Spalding was yet to happen, and here’s that post about it.

Until then, dig this. In 1992, Gray did an exclusive trailer for the documentary Brother’s Keeper, and until the film came out on DVD, this trailer was considered “rare and precious Spalding”…

And Everything is Going Fine opens today. It’s Steven Soderbergh’s portrait of Mr. Gray. I can’t wait to see it. Here’s the trailer…


Filed under Humor

“Home” for the Holidays: Christmas in South Jersey

I’m proud and happy to announce the launch of a new website, exclusively for the holiday season. Christmas in South Jersey is the online version of a photo album I made 18 years ago.

I don’t know if the rural and suburban areas of Southern New Jersey are unique, but back in 1992, it was all I knew. And every December, the lawns become cluttered with lights and ornaments, a mishmash of Nativity scenes and North Pole motifs. Jesus and Santa Claus would be side-by-side. The Virgin Mary strangely close to a plastic snowman. Angels sharing porch space with reindeer. (Trust me, my Jewish friends, it was as confounding to me as it would be to you!) And in the harsh daylight sun, it was clear that these seasonal trophies were dreadfully old, weather-beaten and tethered to a dozen feet of orange extension cords.

And the faces of South Jersey are equally fascinating…

A few days after I graduated film school, I spent ten days combing the backwoods of my home state, taking about 800 photographs, and making a 45-page photo album, which has been seen by very few people since.

So, when you have a few minutes during your crazy December, check it out. I’d like to think being 18 years old gives the album nostalgic value, but I bet most of these Christmas ornaments are still in service.

(I made this website in iWeb and am still tweaking it. It looks the way I want it to, but, frankly, the program’s pretty unpredictable. It’s possible I’ll pull it down and relaunch another way. Until then, I welcome feedback of any kind, especially suggestions for alternatives to iWeb.)

And, please, in the spirit of giving, share this link with your friends!


Filed under Links